The UK director of Aid to the Church in Need has hit out at the announcement that British aid to Pakistan will be increased – as killings linked to the blasphemy laws continue in the country.
Neville Kyrke-Smith raised serious concerns about overseas aid packages that do not include assurances of respect for human rights and religious freedom.
The announcement that government aid to Pakistan would increase broke shortly after news that Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for religious minorities, had been killed by gunmen in Islamabad.
Expressing outrage at the murder, Mr Kyrke-Smith asked: “How can the British government be planning to increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who are against the infamous blasphemy laws are not protected and just gunned down?”
The UK’s International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has indicated that overseas aid could more than double, exceeding £445 million a year.
Mr Kyrke-Smith continued: “Pressure should be put on the Pakistan government to ensure religious freedom – you cannot provide aid without commitment to human rights.”
Noting the various attacks on Christians which have occurred he said that conditions should be attached to any aid payment, including a definite commitment to protection for Christians and other religious minorities – including Shia Muslims – who may experience attacks following accusations of blasphemy.
Mr Kyrke-Smith said: “As a democratic country we should be encouraging religious freedom and human rights in those countries we are giving aid to.”
His remarks followed news that Shahbaz Bhatti died earlier today (Wednesday, 2nd March) after being shot by unidentified gunmen. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Shifa Hospital.
Mr Bhatti had received death threats from Islamist militants in the past for speaking out against the country’s blasphemy laws. He was the only Christian minister in Pakistan’s cabinet.
Bishop Sebastian Shaw, Auxiliary Bishop of Lahore, told Aid to the Church in Need: “When we heard this news [about Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder] we were all shocked – people started crying.
“Shahbaz wanted to build inter-faith harmony and bring more peace. Of course we are angry as well as sad but we are hoping people will remain calm.”
Mr Bhatti’s death was the latest attack on public figures who spoke out about reforming the blasphemy laws that impose the death penalty for insulting the Qur’an or the prophet Mohammed.
Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, was murdered by one of his bodyguards in Islamabad in February.
Aid to the Church in Need has helped Christians rebuild churches after previous attacks – last year Saint Mary’s Church in Sukkur, Sindh Province, was rebuilt after it was destroyed by a mob in 2006. The charity also supports Christian communities in the country.