Gunmen Kill Pakistan's Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti.
Suspected Islamic militants shot dead Pakistan's federal minister for minority affairs who had campaigned for reforming the country's controversial blasphemy law.
Shahbaz Bhatti, one of the few Christians in a senior government position, was traveling in Islamabad, the capital, to attend a cabinet meeting when three gunmen open fire on his car. Eyewitness and police said the gunmen dragged Mr. Bhatti out of his car and shot him several times before escaping in a white Suzuki vehicle. Mr. Bhatti was shot eight times and died on the spot. His driver was also seriously injured.
No group immediately claimed responsibility. But the attackers left leaflets saying they had acted in the name of the Punjabi Taliban and al Qaeda.
"This is the horrible fate of this cursed person," read the leaflet. It also blamed the government of putting an "infidel Christian" in an important position. The killing of Mr. Bhatti, a Catholic in his 40s, further deepens the political instability in a country where secular-minded politicians are increasingly at odds with a rising strain of Islamism in the middle classes.
It also complicates the role of the U.S. in Pakistan. Washington has strengthened ties with the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, including a massive new civilian aid package. But the government, viewed as too pro-U.S. and secular by many Pakistanis, is increasingly unpopular.
The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, in a statement condemned the killing of Mr. Bhatti, who he called a "Pakistani patriot and a voice for understanding."
In January, Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab province and a key ally of Mr. Zardari, was killed by his police bodyguard. Mr. Taseer, a Muslim, also had spoken out against the blasphemy law, which human rights groups and others say has been used to target minority groups like Christians and Ahmadi Muslims.
The police guard said he shot Mr. Taseer in a posh Islamabad shopping center because of his stance on the blasphemy issue. The guard is facing trial but has been feted as a hero by some religious groups and other sectors of the middle classes like lawyers' associations.
Mr. Bhatti had angered Islamic extremists for urging changes in the law which sanctions the death penalty to anyone found guilty of blasphemy against the prophet Muhammed.
He was head of a parliamentary committee which was examining misuse of the law. In many cases, people have used it to settle local scores unrelated to religion, human rights groups say. In recent media interviews, Mr. Bhatti had vowed to continue his campaign against the law, despite receiving repeated death threats from the Islamists.
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.
The loss of one of the most prominent leaders of Pakistan's small Christian community comes amid increased persecution from Islamists. 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.
Christians are the largest religious minority in the country, where about 5% of the nations's 180 million population are non-Muslims. "We have lost our most courageous spokesman," said Akram Massig Gil, a Christian member of parliament.
Authorities have yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy since the laws were tightened under the Islamist dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. But human rights groups say the laws have encouraged militant violence against minorities. Scores of people, most of them Christians, are in detention facing trial under the law.
"Bhatti's murder is the bitter fruit of appeasement of extremist and militant groups," Human Rights Watch, the New York-based rights advocacy group, said in a statement.
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, is currently in hiding.