The assassination of Pakistan’s sole Christian government minister has thrown the spotlight on controversial blasphemy laws and again highlighted the difficulties facing religious minorities in the Sunni Muslim-majority country.
On Wednesday, Shabhaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minorities Affairs minister, was shot dead in Islamabad by attackers claiming links to al-Qaeda. Mr. Bhatti, a Catholic, was an outspoken critic of the blasphemy code, which in some cases makes it a capital offence to insult the Prophet Mohammed.
Three days national mourning were declared by Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani, who attended Bhatti’s funeral service on Friday, held at Islamabad’s main Catholic church. In front of a crowd estimated at around one thousand, Gilani pledged to catch Bhatti’s killers. “Today is a very sad day, I consider it a black day. We are mourning the death of Shahbaz Bhatti. It’s a great loss to the nation. He was working for inter-faith harmony,” he said.
Bhatti was the second major political figure to be murdered in recent weeks after expressing public opposition to the blasphemy laws, with Punjab state governor Salman Taseer shot dead by one of his own security guards on January 4.
The assassinations are linked to a lightening-rod case involving a 42 year old Christian woman. Both Bhatti and Taseer called for the charges against Mrs. Asia Bibi to be dropped, with the mother of five facing the death penalty after being accused by neighbours of insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
In a defiant interview filmed four months ago, Bhatti acknowledged that death threats had been issued against him. “I am following the cross, and I am ready to die for a cause I am living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights”, he said.
Bhatti was brought into the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 2002, at the initiative of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was herself slain in late 2007 by the Pakistani Taliban after returning to the country from exile in the UK. Bhutto’s widower, current President Asif Ali Zardari, told a state news agency after Bhatti’s murder that the Government would confront terrorist groups in Pakistan, saying “We will not be intimidated nor will we retreat.”
However there are doubts on whether the Pakistani authorities have the will to follow up on such rhetoric. Mehdi Hassan, chief of the Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said that he does not foresee any major changes after Bhatti’s killing. “The government leaders will keep condemning the murder for a few days and then the people will forget”, he concluded.
MP Sherry Rehman is the sole remaining Pakistani politician to have spoken out against the laws and the impending hanging of Asia Bibi, but she was forced into hiding after Taseer’s murder 2 months ago. After Taseer’s death, 40,000 people demonstrated in Karachi, demanding that the blasphemy laws be retained.
There are no apparent plans to revise or revoke the laws, which some say are often abused to settle scores. According to the IHRC, the laws leave the country’s Christian, Sikh, Hindu, Parsi and Ahmadi minorities vulnerable to false claims during neighbourhood or business disputes.Show