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Murder of Christian lawmaker: Can Pakistan check Islamic extremism?

Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and Pakistan's minority affairs minister, is the second top official in the past two months to be killed after opposing harsh blasphemy laws. Critics say the country isn’t doing enough to protect minorities.

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“He worked hard for the uplift of Christians and all minorities in this country,” adds Dr. Azeem, who described himself as a friend of Bhatti’s.

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Islamabad Police Chief Wajid Ali Khan, however, told reporters that Bhatti had “turned down” security on Wednesday and was staying at his mother’s house, rather than his own official residence. “When he went to his mother’s house, he did not travel with his own escort,” he said.

Blasphemy laws, different tactic after Taseer's death

Critics of the blasphemy laws say they are used to persecute minorities and carry out personal vendettas.

In December, before Taseer’s assassination, Bhatti had publicly announced government plans to form a committee to suggest procedural changes to the controversial blasphemy law, but the idea was scratched when Islamic religious parties raised concerns. Responding to ongoing rumors in January, Bhatti denied the government was moving forward with the committee.

After Taseer's assassination, Bhatti remained critical of the law's application. He told attendees of a Christian memorial service held for Taseer that “we have sacrificed a lot for Pakistan. None of us could imagine committing blasphemy, but some radical forces are exploiting these laws for personal interests. We will not allow anyone to exploit these laws to spread fanaticism.”

In a press statement following Taseer’s assassination, he sounded similar concerns about misuse of the blasphemy law.

"Salman Taseer's assassination is a barbaric act of religious violence as he took a principled stand against misuse of the blasphemy law…. Those who issued a decree for killing should be investigated and blasphemy laws should be reviewed to control the increasing intolerance in society.”

In interviews with Western media, he continued, even after Taseer's death, to call for amending the law.

“The blasphemy law has to be amended. We cannot condone contempt of any religion or religious personality, but this law is being abused by Muslim extremists to victimize minorities,” Bhatti told the Adnkronos International, a news service out of Rome. Bhatti told the BBC that “I was told that if I was to continue the campaign against the blasphemy law, I will be assassinated. I will be beheaded. But forces of violence, forces of extremism cannot harass me, cannot threaten me.”

Pakistan response?

Protests erupted in the city of Lahore immediately after the killing, as the country’s Christian community sought to come to terms with the killing.

Barbara Shafqat, a Christian government employee who had traveled to the hospital where Bhatti’s body was taken to express her grief, says “Our leader has been targeted. This is a huge injustice, how can we feel safe? The killers must be brought to account for the country’s unity.”

In February, Bhatti, a Catholic, went to Washington to attend the National Prayer Breakfast and to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to discuss interfaith harmony in Pakistan.

Christians make up roughly 2.8 million of Pakistan's population of 170 million. The Vatican issued a statement Wednesday condemning the murder of as an “unspeakable” act of violence.


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