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.
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.”
— 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.