.- Shahbaz Bhatti, a leading voice for religious freedom and peace in Pakistan, was assassinated March 2.
The 42-year old Bhatti served as federal minister for religious minorities. He was a Catholic and the only Christian in Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari's Cabinet.
Bhatti was slain by three men as he left his mother's home in Islamabad by car. His usual police escort was not present because Bhatti preferred to keep a low profile while visiting his mother, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Eyewitnesses told the AP that as the vehicle left the driveway, two men pulled Bhatti out of the car while a third fired on him with an automatic weapon.
Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, head of the nation’s bishops, called Bhatti’s slaying “a perfectly tragic example of the unsustainable climate of intolerance in which we live in Pakistan.”
In a statement issued through the Vatican’s missionary news agency Fides, Archbishop Saldanha said, “We call on the Government, the institutions, the whole country to recognize and take decisions about these issues, because there must be an end to this situation, where violence prevails.”
In a separate statement to Fides, Peter Jacob, secretary of the bishops' justice and peace commission, said Christians “are in a state of shock and panic.”
“We feel vulnerable,” he said, “especially the defenders of human rights and religious minorities.
“This murder means that the country is at the mercy of terrorists, who can afford to kill high-ranking personalities. We feel very vulnerable: they are more powerful than defenders of human rights and religious minorities.”
Pakistani Church officials said they have not decided yet how to respond.
At the Vatican, the papal spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, recalled that Bhatti was the first Catholic to hold such a high position in Pakistan and that he had met with the Pope last September.
“He bore witness to his own commitment to peaceful coexistence among the religious communities of his country,” the spokesman said of Bhatti.
“Our prayers for the victim, our condemnation for this unspeakable act of violence, our closeness to Pakistani Christians who suffer hatred, are accompanied by an appeal that everyone many become aware of the urgent importance of defending both religious freedom and Christians who are subject to violence and persecution.”
Bhatti had received death threats in recent months from Islamic extremist groups angered by his opposition to the nation’s anti-blasphemy law. The law is designed to prevent any public criticism of Islam or its prophet, Muhammad.
Bhatti and other critics, including Pope Benedict XVI, say the law should be abolished because it is consistently used to harass and intimidate religious minorities, mostly Christians.
The blasphemy law has created deep divisions in Pakistani society, especially after a Christian mother named Asia Bibi was sentenced to death for allegedly violating it. She has been in prison for more than a year despite widespread international protests.
Al-Qaida and the Punjab province-based Pakistani Taliban Movement claimed responsibility for Bhatti’s killing, according to the AP.
A leaflet left at the scene charged that Bhatti, an “infidel Christian,” was serving on a government committee working to overturn the blasphemy law. The Pakistani government has repeatedly denied the existence of such a committee.
The note concluded, “with the blessing of Allah, the mujahedeen will send each of you to hell.”
Before his appointment as minister for religious minorities he founded and led the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance and the Christian Liberation Front.
Fides reported last month that the Pakistani Secret Service was “deeply concerned” that an attack on the minister was “imminent.” Pakistani sources said he was a “number one target” for his work to abolish the law prohibiting blasphemy.
Bhatti told Fides he would not change his stance.
“Pray for me and for my life," said Bhatti. “I am a man who has burnt his bridges. I cannot and will not go back on this commitment. I will fight fanaticism and fight in defense of Christians to the death.”
Bhatti is the second prominent government official to be assassinated this year because of his position on the blasphemy law. The Muslim governor of the Punjab region, Salman Taseer, was murdered at the start of the year by a body guard who said he was angered by Taseer’s defense of Bibi.
After the governor's funeral, on Jan. 5, Bhatti told Vatican Radio that Taseer's assassination might intimidate other opponents of the blasphemy law.
“But,” he added, “I believe that the discovery of this violence cannot create fear and cannot stop us from raising our voices in favor of justice and the protection of minorities and innocent people in Pakistan."
He was aware that his life was in danger. He had given the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera and the BBC a pre-recorded message to be broadcast in the event he was killed.
In the message, Bhatti said that death threats will not change his opinions and principles. He asserts that he will not stop speaking on behalf of Pakistan's “oppressed and marginalized persecuted Christians and other minorities.”
“I will die to defend their rights,” he said in his message.