Suspected Islamists kill Pakistan's Christian cabinet member


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan's only cabinet-level Christian, who openly criticized his nation's "blasphemy" laws, was assassinated March 2 by unidentified gunmen.

Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minority affairs, was killed after leaving his mother's home in a residential area of the Pakistani capital. He was headed to a meeting of the federal cabinet.

Islamabad Police Chief Wajid Durrani said three or four armed men in a white Suzuki car intercepted Bhatti's official vehicle, spraying it with 25 to 30 bullets.

"The attackers were clad in shawls and fired bursts on him, killing him instantly," Durrani said.

Bhatti's driver, Gul Sher, told police at least one gunman had taken part in the attack.

"A white car stopped near us at a crossing," said Gul, who was slightly injured in the shootout. "Four people were sitting in the car. One of them got out with a Kalashnikov ... He came in front of the car and opened fire. I ducked. Minister died on the spot."

Bhatti, a 42-year-old bachelor, was dead on arrival at Islamabad's Shifa Hospital, Dr. Azmatullah Qureshi confirmed.

Suspected Islamic extremists from Pakistan's Taliban and al Qaeda reportedly left a letter at the scene saying those who try to change Pakistan's blasphemy laws would be killed. Police sources said the letter also accused Bhatti of waging a campaign to amend the blasphemy law.

"Bhatti, a Christian, was in charge of a committee set up to amend the law against blasphemy," the letter stated. "This is his fate. We will not spare anybody involved in acts of blasphemy."

Police are investigating the letter's authenticity. 

The murder comes two months after Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer was killed by his bodyguard for supporting Asia Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi, the first Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges.

Although the federal government had provided bodyguards for Bhatti, they were not present at the time of the attack.

"The squad officer told me that the minister had directed him to wait for him at his office," Durrani claimed. "He used to often visit his mother's house without a squad."

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani visited the hospital and offered condolences to Bhatti's grieving relatives.

"Such acts will not deter the government's resolve to fight terrorism and extremism," he said.

A senior TV anchorperson, however, told Compass by phone from Islamabad that the late minister had expressed dissatisfaction over the security provided to him by the Islamabad police.

"Bhatti told me that he had repeatedly asked the government to provide him a house in the high-security Red Zone area of the federal capital, where most of the government ministers have been provided accommodation, but he was told there was no vacant house at the moment and he would have to wait," said the TV journalist.

Bhatti had defied death threats after the Jan. 4 assassination of Taseer, conceding in several interviews at the time that he was "the highest target right now" but vowing to continue his work and trusting his life to God.

Threats reported
Last month, in an interview with the Pakistan Christian Post, Bhatti said he had received threats.

"I received a call from the Taliban commander and he said, 'If you will bring any changes in the blasphemy law and speak on this issue, then you will be killed,'" Bhatti told the newspaper. "I don't believe that bodyguards can save me after the assassination (of Taseer). I believe in the protection from heaven."

In a recent interview with the BBC, Bhatti had said he was "ready to die for a cause" as a Christian.

"I am living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights," he said. "These threats and warnings cannot change my opinion and principles."

In a statement released to Baptist Press, Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern, said Bhatti knew he was "living on borrowed time." said the president of an international Christian organization focused on human rights.

"(He) courageously defended the rights of persecuted Christians in Pakistan despite living under the constant threat of death," King said. "He died as a martyr for a cause he believed in."

Compass Direct News

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