Taliban say killed Christian Pakistani cabinet minister for blasphemy
Taliban militants on Wednesday shot dead Pakistan’s only Christian government minister for challenging a law that mandates the death penalty for insulting Islam, the latest sign of instability in a country where many fear radical Islam is becoming more mainstream. Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti is the second senior official this year to be assassinated for opposing the blasphemy law. Provincial governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by his own bodyguard in January.
These killings, along with frequent militant attacks and chronic economic problems have raised fears for the future of U.S.-ally and nuclear-armed Pakistan, where an unpopular coalition government is struggling to cope.
Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, was shot by men in shawls in broad daylight while he was travelling in a car near a market in the capital, Islamabad, police said. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing, saying the minister had been “punished” for being a blasphemer.
Witnesses said the attackers scattered leaflets signed by “The Qaeda and the Taliban of Punjab” at the attack scene, which read: “This is the punishment of this cursed man.”
The blasphemy law has been in the spotlight since last November, when a court sentenced a Christian mother of four to death after her neighbors complained she had insulted Prophet Muhammad. On Jan. 4, the governor of the most populous province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who had strongly opposed the law and sought a presidential pardon for the 45-year-old Christian farmhand, was killed by one of his bodyguards who had been angered by the governor’s stand.
Taseer’s killer was lionized by many in Pakistan, raising fears that mainstream society’s tolerance for secularists and moderates was being eroded by a more hardline version of Islam.
“This kind of attack was expected after the government’s response to Governor Taseer’s assassination,” said Amir Rana, director at the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. “Because of the government’s very weak response … it has encouraged the hardliners in society.” The government of President Asif Ali Zardari has repeatedly said it would not change the blasphemy law, and officials have distanced themselves from anyone calling for amendments.
Al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban militants, fighting to bring down the state, had called for Bhatti’s death because of his attempts to amend the law. “He was a blasphemer like Salman Taseer,” spokesman Sajjad Mohmand said by telephone from an undisclosed location.