Rarely have Pakistan’s religious minorities and liberals felt more beleaguered. Less than two months after the killing of Salmaan Taseer, another government minister has been assassinated in a hail of bullets.
On this occasion, the killers were Taleban militants rather than a bodyguard.
Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of the Cabinet, received death threats because of his outspoken wish to reform blasphemy laws. One thing has become very clear: anyone in Pakistan who dares speak out against these laws instantly becomes a target.
For Pakistan’s minorities, the feeling is nothing less than despair. “We are all feeling very shocked, very shaken,” said Father Abid Saeed, a senior Catholic priest from Lahore.
The blasphemy laws impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.
Gunmen ambushed Bhatti outside his mother’s home in Islamabad and sprayed his car with at least 10 bullets, killing him instantly. The assassination was chillingly similar to that of Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, who was slain by his own bodyguard in January.
The assassination was claimed by “the al-Qaeda organisation and the Punjabi Taleban”. Before speeding away, the killers left behind pamphlets boasting of their act.
“The only punishment for blasphemy against the Prophet is death,” the pamphlet in Urdu said.
“A white car stopped near us at a crossing,” Bhatti’s driver Gul Sher, who was slightly injured, said. “Four people were sitting in the car. One of them got out with a Kalashnikov … He came in front of the car and opened fire. I ducked. Minister died on the spot.”
The Minorities Minister had been receiving threats from militant groups for some time. In a video broadcast before his death he said: “The forces of violence, militant banned organisations, the Taleban and al-Qaeda want to impose the radical philosophy in Pakistan. Whoever stands against their radical philosophy, they threaten them.”
Christians are mourning the loss of their most prominent political leader.
“We’ve been attacked many, many times in our history,” said Shimon Gill of the All Pakistan Minority Alliance. “But now we have been orphaned. Who will speak up for us now?”
In Bhatti’s village, Christians torched tyres, beat their chest in protest and denounced the killers.
The Pakistan Government claims that after Taseer’s assassination by a member of the police supposed to be guarding him, Bhatti refused to have bodyguards.
But his associates said he was denied the security he asked for, and was not given a bulletproof vehicle.
Bhatti, a Catholic member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, told friends he was prepared to die in pursuit of rights for his community. “These threats … cannot change my opinion and principles,” he said. “I would prefer to die for my principles, and for the justice of my community, rather than compromise on these threats.”
Human rights groups said the situation laid bare the government’s policy of appeasement towards extremists.
Since Taseer’s assassination, the religious right has gone from strength to strength, mounting huge demonstrations in support of the country’s blasphemy laws and exalting his assassin.
For the country’s liberals, those who covet the Pakistan envisaged by founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who said there should be “no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another”, there are few heroes left.
The Pakistan People’s Party has made clear it no longer has any plans to reform the blasphemy laws.
Liberal Pakistanis used to relish the fact the religious parties always did poorly at the polls. Now they are confronting the reality that it no longer matters: if the country’s purported progressive party has been chased away from such important issues, it undermines their election success.
Raza Rumi, a journalist from Lahore, posted a blog saying: “Sometimes it feels we are living in the Stone Age, where no dissent and no call for a tolerant society is possible.”