Christian groups organized street protests and meetings after the assassination of Catholic federal minister for minorities affairs Shahbaz Bhatti yesterday in Islamabad, the capital city. Bhatti, 42, was attacked shortly after he left his residence at around 11.20 am and headed to a meeting of the federal cabinet. Reports said several gunmen surrounded his vehicle and sprayed it with bullets. Eyewitnesses said there was no sign of the minister's usual security escort vehicle or his guards. Leaflets of al-Quaeda and a branch of the Taliban were reportedly found at the scene, claiming Bhatti was a “known blasphemer” and threatening further violence.
Prime minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani said he strongly condemned the killing of the federal minister.
Both the Catholic and Protestant bishops were due to meet last night at the residence of Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore. Vicar General Father Andrew Nisari, the meeting coordinator, condemned the killing.
“It is not only the loss of Christians but of the whole nation. Bhatti fought for justice and his murder exposes the weakness of government as well as the power of fanatics”, he said.
Father Nisari also urged the government to refocus on the “law of the jungle” dominating society. “It is clear that no-one can have a difference of opinion in this country. If this trend continues, Pakistan will not only become a failed state but will be left alone by the international community”, he added.
Bhatti had been receiving threats for opposing the country’s blasphemy laws. He stopped appearing in media after the recent killing of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, also for resisting the blasphemy laws.
Bhatti was appointed on November 2, 2008 as the first Catholic minister for minorities. He started his political career after founding the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance movement in 1985. He had received numerous international prizes for religious liberty, peace and his struggle in favor of human rights. A month ago the head of the Catholic Church in Pakistan expressed outrage at the government’s decision to withdraw a private member’s bill proposing changes in the blasphemy laws, calling it “an act of surrender.” The laws make any insult to the Qur’an an offense punishable by up to life imprisonment, while giving the death penalty to anyone convicted of insulting Prophet Muhammad. Church leaders have long claimed that the laws are being abused for personal gain and to harass non-Muslims. NGOs record 1,392 people were killed in blasphemy laws-related violence.