Pakistani leader Shahbaz Bhatti has become the latest casualty in the ongoing fight against the country’s blasphemy laws.
The Federal Minister for Minorities was gunned down in his own vehicle while en route to a meeting on Wednesday. The attack came from several gunmen in another car, who stopped Bhatti’s vehicle and proceeded to open fire on him with automatic weapons.
Bhatti, the only Christian in the Cabinet, had been receiving death threats from Islamic extremists for his outspoken opposition to the nation’s controversial Islamic blasphemy laws, the penalties for which often range from fines to long-term imprisonment. Bhatti had also expressed support for Asia Bibi, a Christian wife and mother who became the first female to be sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in November 2010.
Bhatti’s death comes on the heels of the recent assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who, like Bhatti, had openly challenged the country’s blasphemy laws. Taseer was gunned down in January 2011 by his own bodyguard, in retaliation for his opposition to the laws and for his support of Asia Bibi, whom he had visited in prison and promised to recommend a pardon for her death sentence.
So far, no one has claimed responsibility for Bhatti’s death.
“Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder is a setback for all Pakistani Christians who continue to struggle for religious freedom,” says Jim Jacobson, president of Christian Freedom International (CFI), a Michigan-based organization that assists persecuted Christians around the world. Jacobson, whose organization provides humanitarian aid and advocacy for hundreds of Pakistani Christians, was a longtime friend of Bhatti’s and has traveled to the region for the leader’s funeral.
Minority Christians have increasingly become the victims of persecution in Muslim-dominated Pakistan, particularly with the rise of Islamic extremism in recent years. Although the nation’s constitution calls for religious freedom for all citizens, Christians continue to suffer from ostracism, kidnapping, physical abuse, false imprisonment, and even death.
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