Pakistan's only Christian cabinet minister assassinated

Mr Bhatti at a recent meeting with Dr Rowan Williams

Mr Bhatti at a recent meeting with Dr Rowan Williams

Church leaders around the world have been voicing their distress at the murder of Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti this morning. Gunmen ambushed his car in broad daylight in the capital Islamabad. He was travelling to work through a residential district when his vehicle was sprayed with bullets, police said.

Mr Bhatti, a Catholic and the cabinet's only Christian minister, had received death threats for urging reform to blasphemy laws.

In January, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who had also opposed the law, was shot dead by one of his bodyguards.

In a statement,  Holy See Press Office Director Fr Federico Lombardi SJ said:  "The assassination of Shabbaz Bhatti, Pakistani minister for minorities, is another terrible episode of violence. It shows how right the Pope is in his persistent remarks concerning violence against Christians and against religious freedom in general.

"Bhatti was the first Catholic to hold such an office. We recall how he was received by the Holy Father in September last year, and how he bore witness to his own commitment to peaceful coexistence among the religious communities of his country.

"Our prayers for the victim, our condemnation for this unspeakable act of violence, our closeness to Pakistani Christians who suffer hatred, are accompanied by an appeal that everyone many become aware of the urgent importance of defending both religious freedom and Christians who are subject to violence and persecution".

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York have made the following statement: "It is with the greatest shock and sorrow that we have heard of the assassination of Mr Shahbaz Bhatti, Minister for Religious Minorities in Pakistan. This further instance of sectarian bigotry and violence will increase anxiety worldwide about the security of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan, and we urge that the Government of Pakistan will do all in its power to bring to justice those guilty of such crimes and to give adequate protection to minorities. Meanwhile, we assure Mr Bhatti's family of our prayers and deep sympathy, and promise our continuing support for all those of whatever faiths who are working for justice and stability in Pakistan."

Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali said: "I am horrified to learn of the murder of Mr Shahbaz Bhatti, The Minister for Minority Affairs in Pakistan, and the only Christian in the Cabinet. I knew him well and saw him last December when I visited Islamabad.

"This is yet another instance of the Talibanisation of the country. Within two months two leading figures in the secular-minded government have been killed (the Governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, was killed a few weeks ago).  Extremists are now operating with impunity in every part of the country.

"The constant teaching of hate in the text books, in sermons and devotionals in radicalised mosques and madrassas and on the streets is the background to this situation. Moderate Muslim opinion has been cowed by the ever-present threat of violence and the non-Muslim communities are helpless in the face of unwillingness by the Government and the army to really tackle extremism.

"The Christian community, which has contributed out of all proportion to its numbers in the fields of health and education, is feeling very insecure. It is already excluded from much of public life and there is discrimination in education and employment - leading to unemployment or being forced to take jobs no one else wants.

"The immediate task must be to protect Christians and churches from attack by those who have murdered Mr Bhatti but, ultimately, the answer lies in tackling the gun-culture, which has grown up around extremist movements and putting an end to their activities. Only the armed forces are capable of doing this - but have they the will to do it? We shall have to see.

"The way ahead must lie in revising text books, reforming madrassas and regulating mosques so that people are not continually being drip-fed with extremist ideology and the conflict it creates in cities, towns and villages."

Christians, who make up an estimated 1.5% of Pakistan's 185 million population, have been left reeling by Mr Bhatti's death.

"We have been orphaned today!" Rehman Masih, a Christian resident of Islamabad, told AP news agency. "Now who will fight for our rights?"

Pakistan's blasphemy law has been in the spotlight since a Christian, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to hang in Punjab last November.

She denies claims she insulted the Prophet Muhammad during a row with Muslim women villagers about sharing water.

Although no-one convicted under the law has been executed, more than 30 accused have been killed by lynch mobs.

* Four months ago  Mr Bhatti said he knew he was in danger. He left a filmed statement to be played in the event of his death. To see the film on the BBC website visit:

Sources: BBC/AP/CoE/VIS

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