KABUL, Afghanistan — The only Christian in Pakistan's cabinet was assassinated Wednesday by militants linked to al Qaida after he called for the country's controversial laws on blasphemy to be amended.
Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for religious minorities, had just left his mother's house in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, and was traveling to work in Islamabad when gunmen sprayed his car with bullets.
The assassination, the second in two months over the blasphemy law, was a reminder of the surge of extremism that is sweeping Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation that is a key U.S. ally in the region.
Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Pope Benedict XVI condemned the killing.
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"Minister Bhatti fought for, and sacrificed his life for, the universal values that Pakistanis, Americans and people around the world hold dear — the right to speak one's mind, to practice one's religion as one chooses, and to be free from discrimination based on one's background or beliefs," Obama said.
Pakistan has been drifting toward Islamic extremism since the 1980s, when a fundamentalist dictator, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, forced hard-line Islam onto the society, fueled by a policy of state patronage for jihadist groups that has continued ever since. That radicalization accelerated after the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Afghanistan in 2001 — even as the government remains a close American partner.
"The extremist state of mind has seeped deep into Pakistani society," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, an analyst based in the eastern city of Lahore. "There is a total lack of consensus on the threat and how to address it."
In January, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province and another prominent politician from the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, was gunned down by one of his own bodyguards after he, too, had called for amendments to the blasphemy law after a Christian woman was sentenced to death under the statute. The law requires the death penalty for people found guilty of insulting Islam or the Prophet Mohamed.
Many Pakistanis celebrated Taseer's death. His alleged killer was showered with rose petals as he made his first court appearance, and some Muslim clerics called for the death of others seeking reform of the blasphemy law — hate speech that went unpunished by the authorities.
Bhatti, a 42-year-old Roman Catholic, also had campaigned for the law's reform. A leaflet left at the assassination site threatened further violence and said that an "infidel Christian" shouldn't have been allowed to head a committee looking at amending the law _ the government has repeatedly denied that any such committee exists.
"With the blessing of Allah, the mujahedeen will send each of you to hell," the leaflet said.
Bhatti knew well that his life was in danger, but was uncowed by the many death threats he'd received. In January, he told an interviewer that he was ready to die. "Forces of darkness cannot threaten me," he said.
Bhatti wasn't traveling with his police guard at the time of his assassination — friends said he was wary of them after the Taseer killing — and he was riding in a car with no armor. He'd complained that his own government wasn't providing him with adequate security.
Critics said the ruling party must share in the blame for Bhatti's killing. They noted that after Taseer's murder, the PPP said it would no longer push for reform of the blasphemy law, even though it's in the party's platform.
"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 Ali Dayan Hasan, a Pakistan-based senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy group. "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."
Farah Ispahani, a member of parliament and spokesman for the Pakistani president, denied that the PPP had bowed to extremists.
"The government of Pakistan and the PPP have a policy of reconciliation not appeasement," she said. "It takes a very strong line against extremism of any kind."
Non-Muslims make up 5 percent of Pakistan's 170 million population, with Christians, who tend to be among the poorest members of society, the biggest minority group.
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