Gunmen kill Christian Pakistan government minister

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By Associated Press

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Assailants purportedly sent by al-Qaida and the Taliban killed the only Christian member of Pakistan's federal Cabinet Wednesday, spraying his car with bullets outside his mother's home. It was the second assassination in two months of a high-profile opponent of blasphemy laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.

Shahbaz Bhatti, a 42-year-old Roman Catholic, had been aware of the danger, saying in a video-taped message meant for broadcast in the event of his death that he was being threatened by the Taliban and al-Qaida. The threats would not deter him from speaking for persecuted Christians and other minorities, he said. "I will die to defend their rights," he said on the tape released Wednesday.

His assassination further undermines Pakistan's shaky image as a moderate Islamic state and could deepen the political turmoil in this nuclear-armed, U.S.-allied state where militants frequently stage suicide attacks. The Vatican said the slaying shows that the pope's warnings about the danger to Christians in the region are fully justified.

Despite the threats, Bhatti, who had been assigned bodyguards, was without protection when he visited his mother in the capital of Islamabad on Wednesday afternoon, police said. The politician had just pulled out of the driveway of the house, where he frequently stayed, when three men standing nearby opened fire, said Gulam Rahim, a witness.

Two of the men opened the door of the car and tried to pull Bhatti out, Rahim said, while a third man fired his Kalashnikov rifle repeatedly into the dark-colored Toyota, shattering the windows. The gunmen then sped away in a white Suzuki Mehran car, said Rahim who took cover behind a tree.

Bhatti was hit by at least eight bullets and was dead on arrival at an area hospital, officials said.

In leaflets left at the scene of the shooting, al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban Movement in Punjab province claimed responsibility. They blamed the government for putting Bhatti, an "infidel Christian," in charge of an unspecified committee, apparently referring to one said to be reviewing the blasphemy laws. The government has repeatedly said such a committee does not exist.

"With the blessing of Allah, the mujahedeen will send each of you to hell," said the note, which did not name any other targets.

Bhatti, a campaigner for human rights causes, had left a video-taped message with the British Broadcasting Corp. and the Al-Jazeera satellite TV station to be broadcast after his death. He said on the tape that threats by al-Qaida and the Taliban would not change his views, including speaking out for "oppressed and marginalized persecuted Christians and other minorities" in Pakistan.

Government officials condemned the killing, but made no reference to the blasphemy law controversy.

"This is a concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive and humanist voice in Pakistan," said Farahnaz Ispahani, an aide to President Asif Ali Zardari. "The time has come for the federal government and provincial governments to speak out and to take a strong stand against these murderers to save the very essence of Pakistan."

Bhatti, who was minister for religious minorities, had been given police and paramilitary guards, said Wajid Durrani, a senior police official. He said Bhatti asked his official guards not to travel with him while he stayed with his mother. His father died recently.

Aides and friends confirmed that Bhatti preferred to keep a low profile — without guards — while staying at his mother's. Bhatti repeatedly requested a bullet-proof car, but in vain, said a friend, Wasif Ali Khan, who was among dozens of weeping mourners waiting for Bhatti's body to be returned to his mother's house.

Bhatti had been nervous about using security guards, Khan said, because it was a bodyguard who in January killed Punjab province Gov. Salman Taseer, another opponent of the blasphemy laws. To the horror of Pakistan's besieged liberals, many ordinary citizens praised the governor's assassin — a sign of the spread of hardline Islamist thought in the country.

With the death of Bhatti, Pakistani Christians lost their most prominent advocate. Christians are the largest religious minority in the country, where roughly 5 percent of 180 million people are not Muslim. They have very little political power and tend to work in lower-level jobs, such as street sweeping.

"We have been orphaned today!" wailed Rehman Masih, a Christian resident of Islamabad. "Now who will fight for our rights? Who will raise a voice for us? Who will help us?"

The assassination drew swift condemnation from Christian leaders elsewhere.

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the slaying is a "new episode of violence of terrible gravity." He said it "demonstrates just how justified are the insistent statements by the pope regarding violence against Christians and religious freedom." Lombardi noted that Pope Benedict XVI had met with Bhatti in September.

In Britain, leaders of the Anglican Church expressed shock and sorrow and urged Pakistan's government to do more to protect Christians. The U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, also condemned the assassination, calling Bhatti "a Pakistani patriot."

Several Muslim leaders in Pakistan either offered a tepid condemnation or alleged the assassination was part of an American-led conspiracy to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians.

The blasphemy laws are a deeply sensitive subject in Pakistan, where most residents are Sunni Muslims and where austere versions of Islam — more common in the Middle East than South Asia — have been on the rise.

Human rights groups have long warned that the laws are vaguely worded and open to abuse because people often use them to settle rivalries or persecute religious minorities.

No one has been put to death for blasphemy in Pakistan because courts typically throw out cases or commute the sentences. Still, some who are released are later killed by extremists or have to go into hiding. Others accused of blasphemy spend long periods in prison while waiting for their cases to wind through the courts.

In a sign of how scared the secular-leaning ruling party is of Islamist street power, party leaders haven't supported calls for reforming the laws. Instead, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and others have repeatedly insisted they won't touch the statutes.

Another prominent opponent of the blasphemy laws, National Assembly member Sherry Rehman, recently dropped her bid to get them changed. The People's Party member said she had to abide by party leaders' decisions. She, too, faces death threats and has been living with heavy security.

Political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais said the killing further weakens a government already seen by many as corrupt and ineffective.

"They're not interested in providing citizens with what they need," he said of the government. "We don't have good economy, good society, good education or good security."