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This time, murder of Pakistan minister spurs condemnation from Islamic clerics

Many Islamic clerics criticized the murder Tuesday of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani Christian who called for blasphemy law reform. Two months ago several hundred lauded the murder of another politician who strongly advocated reform.

By Staff Writer, Issam AhmedCorrespondent / March 3, 2011

Pakistani Christians hold a cross and a poster of slain Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, during a protest in Hyderabad to condemn his assassination, March 3.

Akram Shahid/Reuters

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New Delhi; and Islamabad, Pakistan

Officials from Muslim political parties and religious groups in Pakistan are reacting more negatively to yesterday’s assassination of Christian cabinet minister Shahbaz Bhatti than to the killing two months earlier of Gov. Salman Taseer. The change highlights the specific combination of religious offense and political expediency that drove many to condone Governor Taseer's killing.

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Both men were killed after calling for changes to the country’s blasphemy law, which includes the death penalty for disrespect of Islam. Following Mr. Taseer’s death, hundreds of Islamic clerics signed a statement supporting the killing, lawyers showered the assassin with rose petals, and Muslim political parties offered qualified condemnations, if any at all.

But so far, few beyond the Pakistani Taliban – who claimed responsibility – are openly supporting Mr. Bhatti’s slaying. The difference: Bhatti had phrased his criticism of the law more discreetly, and by the time of his assassination, the government had already completely backed down.

“We wholly condemn the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti,” says Nawaz Kharal, spokesman for the Sunni Ittehad Council, which represents the Barelvi current of Sunni Islam. The secretary general of the council, along with other top Barelvi leaders, signed the statement of support for Taseer’s killing and pressured followers not to attend his funeral.

“At the time Salman Taseer was killed there was a whole movement to dismantle the blasphemy laws. When Bhatti was killed, that movement had finished,” says Mr. Kharal.

Additionally, Taseer couched criticism of the blasphemy law in harsher terms than Bhatti, calling the law a “black law.”

“There are two ways of making comments on the blasphemy law. If you say there are some weaknesses and they have to be resolved so that innocent are not caught, that is alright,” says Kharal, summarizing his view of Bhatti’s criticism. “But if you say it is a ‘black law,’ that is wrong.”

Pakistan’s major Muslim religious parties echoed this reasoning.

“It is not blasphemy to criticize the law. Taseer declared this was a ‘black law.’ That was a wrong stand,” says Liaqat Baloch, the secretary general of Jamaat-i Islami (JI).

JI condemned both killings, he says, but Taseer’s “wrong stand” created popular pressure for the government to remove him from his post. He blamed the government for not responding and said it’s now up to the courts to decide what to do with the assassin.

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