ISLAMABAD — Militants gunned down the only Christian in Pakistan's government outside his widowed mother's home Wednesday, the second assassination in two months of a high-profile opponent of laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.
Shahbaz Bhatti was aware of the danger he faced, saying in a videotaped message that he had received death threats from al-Qaida and the Taliban. In it, the 42-year-old Roman Catholic said he was "ready to die" for the country's often persecuted Christian and other non-Muslim minorities.
The slaying in Islamabad followed the killing of Salman Taseer, a liberal politician who was gunned down in the capital by one of his guards. Both men had campaigned to change blasphemy laws in Pakistan that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam and have been loudly defended by Islamist political parties.
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The Taseer slaying triggered fears the country was buckling under the weight of extremism, especially since the government, fearful of militants and the political parties that champion their causes, did not loudly condemn the killing or those who publicly celebrated it.
Wednesday's slaying will only reinforce those concerns and further undermine confidence in the government, which appears paralyzed by political rivalries and unable to fix a stagnant economy or provide basic services for the country's 180 million mostly poor people.
The turmoil comes despite attempts by the Obama administration to support Pakistan, which it sees as key to ending the war in neighboring Afghanistan and defeating al-Qaida, whose leadership is believed to reside in the mountainous northwestern regions.
Pakistani government ministers usually travel with police escorts, but Bhatti was without such protection when he was killed as he and a driver left his mother's home. Bhatti, who was minister for religious minorities, had been given police and paramilitary guards but had asked them not to accompany him while he stayed with his mother, said Wajid Durrani, a senior police official.Pakistan’s minorities gripped by fear and despair
A friend of the politician, Wasif Ali Khan, said Bhatti was nervous about using guards after the Taseer killing and had requested a bulletproof car, but had not received one.
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Bhatti had just pulled out of the driveway when three men opened fire, said Gulam Rahim, a witness. Two opened the door of the car and tried to pull Bhatti out, Rahim said, while a third fired a Kalashnikov rifle repeatedly into the dark-colored Toyota, shattering the windows.
The gunmen then sped away in a white car, said Rahim, who took shelter behind a tree.
Bhatti was hit with at least eight bullets and was dead on arrival at hospital.
In leaflets left at the scene, al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban Movement in Punjab province claimed responsibility. They blamed the government for putting Bhatti, an "infidel Christian," in charge of an unspecified committee, apparently in reference to his support for changing the blasphemy laws.
"With the blessing of Allah, the mujahedeen will send each of you to hell," said the note, which did not name any other targets.
Government officials and political party workers condemned the killing, but made no reference to the blasphemy law controversy. Muslim clerics contacted by The Associated Press or interviewed on Pakistani TV either offered a tepid condemnation or claimed the assassination was part of an American-led conspiracy to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians.
Bhatti, a soft-spoken minister who rose to prominence defending a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, often spoke of the threats against him from extremists. Very few Pakistani politicians were willing to talk about changing the blasphemy law because of the danger.
"They (the Taliban) want to impose their radical philosophy in Pakistan. And whoever stands against their radical philosophy, they threaten them," he said in the video message, which was posted on the website of the First Step Forum, a Finland-based group that promotes religious harmony, rule of law and democracy.
"These threats and these warnings cannot change my opinions and principles. I'm living for my community and suffering people," said Bhatti, who was an adviser to the group and had asked that his message be released in the event of his death.
The slaying robbed Pakistani Christians of their most prominent advocate.
"We have been orphaned today!" wailed Rehman Masih, a Christian resident of Islamabad. "Now who will fight for our rights? Who will raise a voice for us? Who will help us?"
Christians are the largest religious minority in Pakistan, whose population is 95 percent Muslim. They have very little political power and tend to work in lower-level jobs, such as street sweeping.
As Christians took to the streets Wednesday to protest in several cities, relatives and friends went to Bhatti's home to pay their respects. "Tell the mullahs that the man who was the voice of the Christians is silent. Where are they now?" Samuel David, one of the visitors, shouted to a television crew.
The assassination drew condemnation from Christian and government leaders elsewhere.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, called the slaying a "new episode of violence of terrible gravity," saying it "demonstrates just how justified are the insistent statements by the pope regarding violence against Christians and religious freedom."
Lombardi noted that Pope Benedict XVI had met with Bhatti in September.
In Britain, leaders of the Anglican Church expressed shock and sorrow and urged Pakistan's government to do more to protect Christians. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the attack was "not only on one man but on the values of tolerance and respect of all faiths and backgrounds."
The blasphemy laws were originally framed by the Asian subcontinent's British colonial rulers but were toughened in the 1980s during the military rule of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, who pushed a politicized, austere brand of Islam.
Human rights groups have long warned that the laws are vaguely worded and open to abuse because people often use them to settle rivalries or persecute religious minorities.
Right-wing Islamist parties, looking for an issue to rally their supporters, have campaigned against any change to the laws, accusing those who seek to amend them of blasphemy — and creating an environment that led to the latest killings.
"Bhatti's murder is the bitter fruit of appeasement of extremist and militant groups both prior to and after the killing of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer," said Human Right Watch. "An urgent and meaningful policy shift on the appeasement of extremists that is supported by the military, the judiciary and the political class needs to replace the political cowardice and institutional myopia that encourages such continued appeasement despite its unrelenting bloody consequences."
Another prominent opponent of the blasphemy laws, ruling party member Sherry Rehman, recently dropped her bid to get them changed. Rehman, who has said she had to abide by party leaders' decisions, faces death threats and has been living with heavy security.
Brummitt reported from Lahore. Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Victor L. Simpson in Rome, Matthew Pennington in Washington and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.
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