ISLAMABAD—The only Christian minister in the Pakistan government was shot dead Wednesday morning as he left his home in the capital to attend a cabinet meeting, an attack strikingly similar to the killing two months ago of another senior politician holding liberal views.
Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister of minorities, was shot eight times by gunmen who ambushed him as he stepped into his car near his mother’s driveway, police officials said. A pamphlet written by a group of Taliban from the province of Punjab was found near the scene in a middle-class residential neighbourhood, the officials said.
Witnesses said three gunmen stopped the minister’s black Toyota Corolla at the corner of his street, pulled the driver out of the car and began firing. The gunmen were wearing traditional Pakistani garb of baggy pants and long tunic, said the inspector-general of Islamabad police, Wajid Durrani.
The pamphlet found at the site warned against changes in Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law and bore the imprint of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, police officials said. It specifically named Bhatti.
Bhatti, like Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab who was gunned down Jan. 4, had campaigned for the reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The law, introduced in the 1970s, calls for the death penalty for those accused of speaking against the Prophet Muhammad.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the assassination “an attack not only on one man but on the values of tolerance and respect for people of all faiths and backgrounds that had been championed by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.” Clinton, who recently met with him, called him a “very impressive, courageous man” who knew the danger he faced.
“When I spoke with him, he was well aware of the drumbeat of threats against him,” she told the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.
The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, quickly issued a statement calling the murder of Batthi, 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.”
The identity of Bhatti’s killers was not known, but suspicion immediately fell on members of extremist militant groups. Taseer was shot by his own government bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, who within days was hailed as a hero by lawyers who only a few years ago were seen as the hope for a more liberal Pakistan. At court appearances on murder charges, Qadri was showered with flower petals.