By Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Chief International Correspondent
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (Worthy News)– Gunmen have shot and killed Pakistan's Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, who publicly challenged the country's controversial blasphemy laws and demanded more rights for minority Christians in the mainly Islamic nation.
Police said Bhatti, 42, was shot dead Wednesday, March 2, while traveling in a car near a market of the capital Islamabad. "Three or four armed men riding in a white Suzuki car intercepted his official vehicle," city police chief Wajid Durrani told reporters. "The attackers were clad in shawls and fired bursts on him, and he died," Durrani added.
"The initial reports are that there were three men who attacked him. He was probably shot using a Kalashnikov, but we are trying to ascertain what exactly happened," Durrani said.
News reports suggested that bullets hit Bhatti's car four or five times through the windshield. Blood covered the back seat, witnesses said.
He was rushed to Shifa Hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival, Christians said. Medics said he had several wounds.
No group clained responsibility for the attack, but there were reports that pamphlets issued by terror group al-Qaeda and the Taliban were found at the site of the attack.
His assassination came shortly after Bhatti, the only Christian in the cabinet, told Worthy News and its partner agency BosNewsLife that he had received death threats from Islamic extremists.
AGAINST BLASPHEMY LEGISLATION
He had been known for publicly opposing the anti-blasphemy legislation and personally demanded the release of a Christian mother of four, Asia Bibi. She was sentenced to death for allegedly making blasphemous statements about Islam, charges she strongly denies.
The law gives the death penalty to anyone found guilty of insulting Islam or the Prophet Mohammad.
Bhatti acknowledged recently he was told that if he would continue his campaign for Bibi and for changes to the controversial legislation he would be killed. They said " I will be assassinated, I will be beheaded. But forces of violence, forces of extremism cannot harass me, cannot threaten me," Bhatti explained.
The minister added he received written letters and messages from Islamic militants, warning him to stop campaigning against the reported misuse of blasphemy laws and pursuing justice for victims of the 2009 anti-Christian attacks in the city of Gojra that killed some eight Christians.
He also told reporters earlier this year that only God could protect him. "I cannot trust on security…. I believe that protection can come only from heaven, so these bodyguards can’t save you."
Bhatti stressed it was important however to "stand against these forces of terrorism because they’re terrorizing the country." Video footage also emerged Wednesday, March 2, in which the minister warned that, "The forces of violence, militant band organizations, Taliban and al-Qaeda — want to impose their radical philosophy in Pakistan…"
POLICE DENIES WRONGDOING
Yet, despite the apparent threats, police chief Durrani denied Wednesday, March 2, that Bhatti had not been provided with proper security, as his supporters suggested.
However Durrani admitted that the minister was not accompanied by his security detail when the attack happened. "The squad officer told me that the minister had directed him to wait for him at his office. He used to often visit his mother's house without a squad," he said in a statement. "We are investigating the matter from different angles."
Bhatti was the second prominent politician to be killed within two months. In January the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by one of his security guards. The assassin in that case said he killed the governor for criticizing the anti-blasphemy law. Taseer was also a senior leader of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party.
Bhatti had made clear however that Taseer's killing would not stop him from campaigning against the blasphemy law which he said was misused to settle personal scores in this predominantly Islamic nation.
INFLUENCING PUBLIC OPINION
He said he wanted Christian journalists and lawyers to join him in his battle by influencing public opinion. "Christian journalists and lawyers can play a vital role in abolition of black blasphemy laws and other discriminatory laws, legislated to let down Christians of Pakistan", he added.
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Wednesday, March 2, condemned the murder, saying it will not deter the country from its fight against religious extremism.
The Vatican also expressed outrage over the killing.
In a statement Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the murder of Batthi was a "terribly grave new act of violence" that "demonstrates that the Pope’s insistent addresses regarding violence against Christians and religious freedom have been justified."