The assassination of a Pakistani governor who opposed the country’s blasphemy law will make it “virtually impossible” for anyone to speak out against it, the Archbishop of Lahore has warned.
On Jan. 4 Punjab governor Salman Taseer was shot by one of his own guards in Islamabad as he was leaving his car near a shopping center. The gunman told police he killed Taseer because of the governor’s opposition to the blasphemy law. According to Minorities Concern of Pakistan, police have arrested six others in connection with the crime.
Governor Taseer had sought a pardon for Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death under the blasphemy law on what her lawyers say are fabricated charges. The politician's killer, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, also cited Taseer’s visit to Bibi and his declaration of her innocence as a motive.
Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous province, having about 56 percent of the country’s total population. About 80 percent of Pakistan’s Christians live in Punjab.
“We were very shocked to hear the news,” Archbishop Lawrence J. Saldanha of Lahore told Vatican Radio. “We feel that this is definitely a move against those who are opposing the blasphemy law.”
The governor was “a quite outstanding critic” of the blasphemy law and had called for its repeal several times.
The archbishop expressed the Catholic Church’s sadness at his murder. He reported that there is increasing intolerance of any form of dissent in Pakistan and less hope that the blasphemy law may be overturned.
He also characterized the government as “lame duck,” without the power to legislate after a main coalition partner of the Pakistani government left the coalition on Jan. 3.
Meanwhile, radical Islamic groups have called nationwide strikes to counter any effort to repeal the blasphemy law.
“Initially when the High Court sentenced Asia Bibi to death, many members of civil society spoke out against this law and there was a general sense that it needed to be repealed. Now that tide has turned,” Archbishop Saldanha said.
Catholics feel increasing marginalized, he explained, and have had to increase security around churches especially during Christmas.
“While there was some hope before that things may change, now with the government virtually a lame duck, that hope has gone,” he stated.
He said Catholics “live from day to day, hoping and praying and quietly going about their business. And not making any waves. Certainly the mood is very gloomy, and there is fear and tension. But at the same time, they come to church and they get an uplifted feeling.”