Wall Street Journal
MARCH 3, 2011
Minister Is Gunned Down in Pakistan
Killing of Christian Is Second of a Blasphemy-Law Critic; Puts in Question Effectiveness of U.S. Support for Moderates
By ZAHID HUSSAIN And TOM WRIGHT
ISLAMABAD—Suspected Islamic militants shot dead the most senior Christian in Pakistan’s national government, in the latest sign that political moderates backed by the U.S. are failing to rein in a growing wave of Islamist extremism.
The second killing this year of a politician who has stood against the blasphemy law, which sanctions the death penalty for insulting Islam, threatened to further destabilize a country where secular-minded politicians are increasingly imperiled by a rising strain of middle-class Islamism.
The chilling climate was highlighted in a video made by the latest victim, Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minorities affairs, to be released in the event of his death.
Members of Pakistan’s Christian community rally to condemn the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti in Lahore Wednesday.
The U.S. has attempted to bolster moderate elements of Pakistan’s society and combat religious extremism with huge disbursements of civilian aid, but the targeting of politicians who espouse secular views and are viewed as supporting the U.S. complicates this strategy. Ties between the two countries have hit new lows after a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency contractor in January was detained after shooting dead two armed men in Lahore.
The government of President Asif Ali Zardari, a U.S. ally, recently dropped moves to reform the blasphemy law, fearing a backlash from extremists.
Mr. Bhatti was traveling in Islamabad, the capital, to attend a cabinet meeting when three gunmen opened fire on his car, police said. The assailants dragged Mr. Bhatti from the vehicle before shooting more bullets into him. He died on the spot after receiving at least eight bullet wounds.
The killers, who escaped, dropped leaflets saying they had acted in the name of the Punjabi Taliban and al Qaeda because the government had put an “infidel Christian” in an important position.
“Bhatti’s murder is the bitter fruit of appeasement of extremist and militant groups,” said Human Rights Watch, the New York-based rights advocacy group, in a statement.
Mr. Bhatti, a 42-year-old Catholic, was a prominent campaigner for the reform of the country’s blasphemy law, which rights groups say has been used to persecute Christians and other minorities.
Salmaan Taseer, a former governor of Punjab province who also opposed the law, was gunned down in Islamabad by his police bodyguard in January. The guard, who said he was angered by Mr. Taseer’s stance, has become a national hero for Islamist groups and other conservatives.
Mr. Bhatti’s damaged car outside an Islamabad hospital
The blasphemy law, which was tightened by U.S.-backed military ruler Gen. Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, has come to symbolize the battle in Pakistan between religious and moderate forces that dates to the nation’s founding in 1947. Efforts to reform the law by a series of secular-leaning governments have foundered in recent years due to opposition from powerful Islamists, who draw support from the country’s middle classes, including lawyers and traders.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee she was “shocked and outraged” by the assassination. She called Mr. Bhatti, whom she met last month in Washington, a “courageous man” who was aware of the threats against him.
Ms. Clinton spoke of the values of tolerance for all faiths championed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. But Mr. Jinnah died soon after the country’s birth and his inclusive vision gave way to a constitution in 1956 that made Pakistan an Islamic republic.
Mr. Zardari’s party, the moderate Pakistan Peoples Party, bills itself as Pakistan’s most liberal party and typically draws support from less religious-minded citizens, many in southern Sindh province. But the assassination of its leader, Benazir Bhutto, a two-time former prime minister and wife of Mr. Zardari, in 2007 by suspected Taliban militants has cowed party members.
Pakistan’s Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who was shot and killed by gunmen on Wednesday, comments before his death on threats he had been receiving. Video courtesy of First Step Forum.
Follow this link to a video made 4 months before his death as Minister Bhatti that predicts his assassination.
Mr. Zardari condemned Wednesday the killing of Mr. Bhatti and ordered an official inquiry but did not mention the blasphemy law.
U.S. ties to Mr. Zardari’s government have been strained by Pakistan’s failure to combat religious extremism, including the continued use of Pakistani soil as a haven for the Afghan Taliban that fight U.S. troops over the border.
U.S. officials have declined to detail the role of the CIA contractor detained in the January Lahore shootings, Raymond Davis, saying only that he provided security to CIA operatives. Pakistani officials believe he was part of a team gathering information on militant groups. U.S. officials said Mr. Davis, a former U.S. Special Forces soldier, shot in self-defense as the men tried to rob him. The U.S. says Mr. Davis is covered by diplomatic immunity.
But Mr. Zardari’s government, facing pressure from Islamist groups, has refused to order his release, pushing some members of the U.S. Congress to question the large amounts of U.S. aid for Pakistan. Mr. Davis’s trial in the Lahore jail where he is being held resumes Thursday.
Mr. Bhatti, who faced assassination attempts six years ago for his support of rape victims, recorded a video in December in Dubai with First Step Forum, a Finland-based Christian human-rights group, which made it public Wednesday. In the video, Mr. Bhatti says repeated death threats from militants wouldn’t deter him from supporting Christians and other minorities.
“I will die to defend their rights,” Mr. Bhatti says.
Targeted killings of politicians have created a newfound feeling of insecurity in Islamabad, a city that had been successful in stopping large-scale terrorist attacks for more than a year.
Taliban militants had in the past carried out a number of attacks in the city, most famously the truck bomb strike on the Marriott hotel in 2008. The government responded by putting a security cordon around the city, with checkpoints on major roads, and intensifying its war against Taliban militants on the border with Afghanistan.
The last major strike in Islamabad was a suicide bombing on the offices of the United Nations’ World Food Program in October 2009.
Militants have responded by moving to more-limited attacks, like Wednesday’s shooting, which are harder to guard against.
The killing of Mr. Taseer, Punjab’s former governor, by a police officer who was meant to protect him also has shown how difficult it is to rely on Pakistan’s security forces to guard against attacks due to widespread sympathies with militants.
Those strains date back to the 1980s when Mr. Zia-ul-Haq, whose government organized the Mujahideen to fight Soviet troops in Afghanistan with U.S. and Saudi funding, promoted religious orthodoxy among security personnel.
Fearing for his life, Mr. Bhatti had asked authorities for a bullet-proof car in recent months but hadn’t received one, said Johan Candelin, executive director of First Step Forum, the group which made the video of Mr. Bhatti. Wajid Durrani, Islamabad’s police chief, said Mr. Bhatti was provided protection in view of the threat to his life but was traveling without his security detail at the time of the attack.
Mr. Bhatti had angered Islamic extremists by urging changes in the blasphemy law. He was head of a parliamentary committee that was examining misuse of the law.
Authorities have yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy, with courts often commuting sentences. But human-rights groups say the law has encouraged militant violence against minorities. Scores of people—most of them Christians and Ahmadi Muslims—have been killed in attacks or are in detention facing trial under the law.
In many cases, people have used it to settle local scores unrelated to religion, these groups say.
Last year, a court sentenced a Pakistani Christian farm worker to death for blasphemy. The Vatican and rights groups have slammed the verdict and called for her release.
The death of Mr. Bhatti shook Pakistan’s small Christian community. Christians are the largest religious minority in the country, where about 5% of the 180 million population are non-Muslims. “We have lost our most courageous spokesman,” said Akram Massig Gil, a Christian member of parliament.
Mr. Bhatti’s killing also is likely to deepen security concerns for others who have spoken out against the blasphemy law. Sherry Rehman, a former minister of information and prominent opponent of the law, has beefed up her security after receiving threats.
contributed to this article.