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.

By , Correspondent , Staff Writer

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    During a May 16, 2007, press conference in Islamabad, Shahbaz Bhatti displayed a threatening letter that a Christian resident of Charsadda town received. On March 2, gunmen killed Mr. Bhatti, Pakistan's government minister for religious minorities, highlighting a growing intolerance for reforming harsh blasphemy laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.
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A leading Pakistani Christian lawmaker who had campaigned for reform of the country’s blasphemy laws was shot dead on Wednesday, adding to concerns the government is unwilling or unable to check Islamic extremism.

Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs and the second politician to be targeted for this reason in as many months, was leaving his mother’s house for work when his car was attacked by two gunmen carrying machine guns, according to multiple eyewitnesses. He died while being taken to hospital, having received eight bullet wounds, according to Islamabad Police Chief Wajid Ali Khan.

Pamphlets dropped on the scene by Mr. Bhatti’s killers and signed by the Pakistan Taliban accused him of having “insulted the prophet” and warned “others who try to reform the blasphemy laws will meet the same fate.” In January, Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab, was killed under similar circumstances in a posh market area of Islamabad. The failure to prevent such attacks, though both politicians received credible threats beforehand, is indicative of the low priority given to maintaining law and order protecting minorities, say some experts.

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According to Mehdi Hassan, chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Pakistan’s political parties are so bitterly divided it makes it extremely difficult to unite against rising extremism. “Our political leaders do not view security as a top priority problem,” he says, adding: “At this time, Pakistan is already isolated in the international community and its image is at lowest ebb, and our major political parties and leaders are not realizing this.”

Bahadur Khan, an eyewitness from a restaurant overlooking the crime scene, told the Monitor that Bhatti's car was intercepted by attackers in a small white Suzuki car. “One gunman came out and began firing from the side of the car, at which time Bhatti’s driver escaped. He then opened fire from the front of the car,” says Mr. Khan. The gunman was able to drop pamphlets before getting back in the car and “calmly driving away.”

Questions were raised in early February about inadequate security for Bhatti. Unlike other ministers who have bulletproof vehicles and dozens of guards, at the time he reportedly had only two security guards and no armored car.

“I am getting threats and was warned that I would be beheaded and would be meted out the treatment similar to Mr. Taseer,” Bhatti told The News in February.

According to Nelson Azeem, one of two remaining Christian lawmakers in parliament, “Mr. Bhatti discussed his lack of security with fellow minority lawmakers many times. He made these concerns known to the prime minister and president, but they did nothing about it.”

“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.

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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