Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister of minority affairs, was assassinated by gunmen today while he sat in a car outside his mother’s house, where he lived. He had waged a strong campaign — inside the government as a minister and outside it in cooperation with human-rights groups — for the repeal of the country’s draconian blasphemy law, which mandates the death penalty for insulting Islam. The 42-year-old was a Roman Catholic, the government’s only Christian minister, and the longtime head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, a non-governmental organization promoting national unity, interfaith harmony, social justice, and human equality. Bhatti’s death comes two months after the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, another opponent of the blasphemy law.
According to Reuters, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for Bhatti’s killing. Additionally, the AP reports that Bhatti left a video-taped message with news agencies to be broadcast after his death in which he says that threats by al-Qaeda and the Taliban would not change his views or stop him from speaking out for “oppressed and marginalized persecuted Christians and other minorities” in Pakistan.
I had the privilege of knowing and working with Shahbaz Bhatti. In September 2009, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom invited him to Washington so that chairman Leonard Leo could present to him the commission’s first religious freedom medallion. At that time, Bhatti vowed again to reform the blasphemy law: “They are using this law to victimize minorities as well as Muslims of Pakistan. This law is creating disharmony and intolerance in our society.”
Death threats were a constant in Bhatti’s life for many years. He once told me that he had never married because he did not think it would be fair to a wife and children to subject them to this concern. His work was his life: At the end of each day, he left his government Cabinet office and headed over to his office at the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, where he continued to help Pakistan’s persecuted minorities until late into the night.
“I personally stand for religious freedom, even if I will pay the price of my life,” he had said when he received the USCIRF award. “I live for this principle and I want to die for this principle.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy law stands in the way of other key reforms and secures the place within society of an ever-radicalizing political Islam. What happened today to Shahbaz Bhatti is tragic and, to Pakistan, even more horrifying.
— Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.