Church leaders in Pakistan have expressed their “deep grief” at yesterday's assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities and announced a three-day period of mourning during which all Christian institutions in the country will remain closed. Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha, chairman of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops Conference, and Rev. Shahid Meraj, vicar of the diocese of Lahore, Representative Church of Pakistan, issued a statement in which they castigated the government's lack of protection of religious minorities, life and liberty. “The government needs to go beyond the rhetoric of ‘minorities enjoying all the rights in the country’ and take practical steps to curb extremism in Pakistan,” it read. Bhatti, 42, was attacked shortly after he left his residence. 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. “We would also like to appeal to the federal and provincial governments to wake up to the challenge of protection of the citizens of Pakistan,” the statement continued. “If the country becomes a killing field of the democrat and liberal individuals who exercise their freedom of conscience and expression, it would embolden the criminals trying to take charge of the country. “The religion has been massively abused to cause harassment and suffering of the people. The reign of terror and bloodshed should be dealt with by administrative and reformative actions on urgent basis.”
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