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Christian Cabinet Minister Shot Dead In Islamabad

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Shahbaz Bhatti was Pakistan's minister for minority affairs. He's pictured here during a visit to Washington in February 2010.

Shahbaz Bhatti was Pakistan's minister for minority affairs. He's pictured here during a visit to Washington in February 2010.

Pakistan's minister for religious minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, who had been calling for changes in the country's blasphemy law, has been killed in a drive-by shooting.

The killing -- the second such attack this year on a senior figure who had opposed Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law -- drew strong condemnation from the Pakistani government, as well as the Vatican and the UN's human rights chief.

Bhatti, Pakistan's only Christian government minister, was driving to a cabinet meeting from his residence in the capital, Islamabad.

"A woman was also sitting with him in the car. They separated the woman and driver [Gul Sher], then fired a burst on [Bhatti]," an eyewitness told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "Then they looked and fired another burst to ensure that he was dead. Then Gul Sher took him to the hospital. The attackers were driving in a white Mehran car. Two attackers were out and some were sitting in the car."

Bhatti was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Threatened By Extremists

Police have launched an investigation and cordoned off all main roads leading to the capital, but the killers escaped. The police have taken three eyewitnesses into protective custody, according to Pakistani media reports.

Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated in January.

Islamabad police chief Wajid Durrani told reporters that police knew that Bhatti had been threatened by extremists. But he said the minister had no police protection when he was attacked.

"The protection [squad] that had been given to [the minister] was not present there," Durrani said. "Now, upon asking, we have been told that the minister instructed them to wait in the office. We had provided [the minister] with a police squad and a paramilitary squad. Moreover, we had provided him with guards at his government house. We are further investigating who stopped the squad from going with the minister -- whether it was the minister's instruction or it was something else."

Bhatti is the second senior government leader killed in the capital since the beginning of this year, ostensibly for opposing the country's controversial blasphemy law.

On January 4, Salman Taseer, the governor of the eastern province of Punjab, who had been an outspoken critic of the law, was gunned down by one of his bodyguards.

'Bodyguards Can't Save Me'

In an interview with the U.S.-based "Christian Post" last month, Bhatti said he had received threats from the Taliban because of his stance on blasphemy. "I don't believe that bodyguards can save me after the assassination [of Salman Taseer]. I believe in the protection from heaven," he said.

A friend of Bhatti, Wasif Ali Khan, said the minister had requested a bulletproof car, but had not received one.

Pakistani Taliban militants claimed responsibility for killing Bhatti. Reuters quotes a Taliban spokesman, Sajjad Mohmand, as saying by telephone from an undisclosed location that the minister was a blasphemer.

Following Bhatti's death, Christian protesters took to the streets in several cities around the country, demanding that those responsible be caught.

Rehman Masih, a Christian resident of Islamabad, said his community had been "orphaned."

"Now who will fight for our rights? Who will raise a voice for us? Who will help us?" he said.

Police officials inspect Bhatti's bullet-riddled car.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani visited the hospital and offered condolences to Bhatti's relatives. "Such acts will not deter the government's resolve to fight terrorism and extremism," he said, and pledged that the killers would be punished.

Farahnaz Ispahani, an aide to President Asif Ali Zardari, denounced "a concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive, and humanist voice in Pakistan." He also urged the federal government and provincial governments "to take a strong stand against these murderers to save the very essence of Pakistan."

Swift Condemnation

The assassination drew swift condemnation from Western officials and Christian leaders.

EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Pakistan to ensure justice, expressing deep concern about "the climate of intolerance" and violence linked to the debate on the controversial blasphemy law.

In a statement, U.S. President Barack Obama condemned Bhatti's killing and said that the minister "sacrificed his life for the universal values that Pakistanis, Americans, and people around the world hold dear -- the right to speak one's mind, to practice one's religion as one chooses, and to be free from discrimination based on one’s background or beliefs."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committeesaid she was "shocked and outraged" by the assassination, which she said reflected a troubling regional trend.

"The intolerance toward minorities, particularly religious minorities, that we are seeing, not only in Pakistan but elsewhere in the region -- the attack on Christians in Iraq, the attack on the Copts in Egypt, the attack on minority Islam sects in Pakistan and elsewhere -- is a matter of deep distress to me personally and to our government," she said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the assassination was "absolutely brutal and unacceptable," telling the House of Commons that it shows "what a huge problem we have in our world with intolerance."

The UN's human rights chief, Navi Pillay, called the killing a "tragedy" and urged the Pakistani government to "honor the courageous stand of Mr. Bhatti and Mr. Taseer" by reforming the blasphemy law.

The Vatican called the slaying an act of "terrible gravity" that underlined the "dramatic urgency of the defense of religious freedom and of Christians" in Pakistan.

And at a news conference in Berlin, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle paid tribute to Bhatti's "great personal courage."

"Everything must be done now to find the culprits for this brutal crime and make them take responsibility," he said. "The protection of all religious groups in Pakistan, including Christians, must be ensured."

Under Pakistan's blasphemy law, anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty, but activists say the vague terminology has led to its misuse.

Liberal Pakistanis and rights groups believe the law to be dangerously discriminatory against the country's tiny minority groups, chiefly Hindus and Christians.

Sense Of Insecurity

Taseer had sought a presidential pardon for 45-year-old Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five sentenced to death in November by a municipal court. Peasants in her village near Lahore, the capital of Punjab, had accused her of committing blasphemy.

Bhatti had strongly condemned the murder of Taseer. Dr. Arish Kumar, a Sikh lawmaker who represents religious minorities in the Pakistani parliament, says this latest assassination will add to the sense of insecurity among non-Muslim Pakistanis.

"There is sense of deprivation. We cannot say something," Kumar says. "As far as I know, [Bhatti] was killed in the same case as that of the governor of Punjab."

Christians, who make up about 2 percent of Pakistan's population, have been especially concerned about the law, saying it offers them no protection.

written by Abubakar Siddique, with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal and agency reports