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Bhatti Killing Should Alarm Pakistan's Minorities

Men carry the casket of slain Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti.
Men carry the casket of slain Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti.
The murder last week of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minority affairs minister and the only Christian in the cabinet, is a reminder of how dangerous it can be to voice one's opinion in violence-riddled Pakistan. Bhatti was a liberal who spoke often against Pakistan's blasphemy laws and their narrow-minded application.

His murder comes just weeks after the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, another prominent moderate. Both men were targeted by Islamic extremists because of their calls to reform the blasphemy laws. The purpose of their murders -- besides depriving moderates of some of their most courageous leaders -- is to frighten moderates and minorities into silence and submission.

More Courage, Not Less

So now is the time for these segments of society to show the courage that Bhatti and Taseer showed during their lives. Pakistan's minorities must not be set back now, but rather must end the violence by proving they will not be cowed by it. The struggle for reform and for equality among all citizens must continue. There must be no caving in to the terrorism of conservative religious forces.

The killings of relatives and dear ones should prompt Pakistan's minorities not to keep silent but to speak out. Although change will be slow, minorities can set the country on a course of change and put extremists on notice that they have not won and cannot win easily.

Arish Kumar, a Sikh member of parliament, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that minorities feel they have no ability to influence a country where the majority makes the laws.

Not All Defeatist

But such defeatism is far from universal. Shehrbano Taseer -- the daughter of Salman Taseer and a member of Pakistan's Muslim majority -- has spoken out against the killing of Bhatti.

A wave of demonstrations by minorities has continued to raise the issue of the blasphemy laws. The demonstrators know that the assassinations have brought their plight to the attention of religious and political leaders around the globe. They know there is a chance now to make sure the lives of Bhatti and Taseer and the others were not lived and lost in vain.

Pope Benedict has repeatedly asked the government of Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy laws and release Asia Bibi from jail. Bibi was locked up for allegedly insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The pope has expressed concern over the treatment of Christians in the country and his pressure boosts the courage of the country's minorities. They have also felt the support of British Home Secretary Theresa May and German parliamentarian Stefan Muller. Muller has called on the European Union to reduce aid funding for countries where Christians are persecuted.

The EU has leverage in Pakistan. The country is a strategic partner for the bloc and has an agreement with the EU that obliges it to improve its human rights situation in exchange for financial assistance. Pakistan, of course, is heavily dependent on foreign aid for everything from flood assistance to help combating terrorism. It also dreams of access to European markets.

This favorable international leverage can bolster domestic pressure for reform if Pakistan's religious minorities can regroup and come together to fight the blasphemy laws.

The Ahmadis

For instance, Christians must forcefully denounce the recent violence against the Ahmadi religious minority.

In May 2010, gunmen stormed an Ahmadi mosque in Punjab and killed more than 80 people. Many conservative Muslims -- and Pakistani law -- consider Ahmadis to be infidels because they allegedly do not believe that the Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet of God and that there will be no prophet after him.

Sixty-four years after the founding of Pakistan, the country's minorities continue to struggle for equality. Many Christians and other non-Muslims -- as well as Muslims accused of blasphemy -- have been killed, either through the courts or extrajudicially.

In 1998, Faisalabad Bishop John Joseph committed suicide to protest the execution of a Christian man on blasphemy charges.

Bhatti's killing is just the latest in this long, sad line.

"I follow the principles of my conscience, and I am ready to die and sacrifice my life for the principles I believe in," Bhatti said. And he continued to speak out for what he believed was right despite repeated threats against him. Now he joins Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King as leaders who were killed but whose causes live on.

Discrimination against non-Muslims is built into the structure of Pakistan. Under the constitution, non-Muslims cannot become president or prime minister. The Federal Shari'a Court has the power to strike down any law deemed "un-Islamic."

The Koran says: "Truly, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves." Pakistan's minorities must overcome their fear and face down the terrorism of Islamic extremism. Otherwise, their humiliation will worsen and their condition will never change.

Bashir Ahmad Gwakh is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL