Islamabad: A group of gunmen shot dead on Wednesday Pakistan’s minister for minorities, a Christian, making him the second senior official to be killed in 2011 for challenging a blasphemy law under which anyone who speaks ill of Islam faces the death penalty.
Minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was shot while travelling in a car near a market in the capital , police said. He was the only Christian in the cabinet.
“The initial reports are that there were three men who attacked him. He was probably shot using a Kalashnikov, but we are trying to ascertain what exactly happened,” said Islamabad police chief Wajid Durrani.
Bullets hit Bhatti’s car four or five times through the windscreen. Blood covered the back seat.
A hospital spokesperson said Bhatti received several wounds.
The anti-blasphemy law has been in the spotlight since November 2010, when a court sentenced a Christian woman to death.
On 4 January the governor of the most populous province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who had strongly opposed the law and sought presidential pardon for the 45-year-old Christian farmhand, was gunned down by one of his bodyguards.
The latest shooting is likely to deter any attempt to change the law that mandates death for anyone who speaks ill of the Islam’s Prophet Mohammad.
Sherry Rehman, a former government minister and member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, which included Bhatti, tried to change the law in 2010 but was forced to stop her effort by the party leadership in the face of opposition from religious conservatives.
Distraught relatives of Bhatti gathered at the hospital where he was taken and one of them bemoaned the treatment of Christians in Pakistan.
The law has its roots in 19th-century colonial legislation to protect places of worship, but it was during the military dictatorship of General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s that it acquired teeth as part of a drive to Islamise the state.
Liberal Pakistanis and rights groups believe the law to be dangerously discriminatory against the country’s tiny minority groups.
Under the law, anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty, but activists say the vague terminology has led to its misuse.
Christians who make up about 2% of Pakistan’s population have been especially concerned about the law saying it offers them no protection.
Convictions hinge on witness testimony and often these are linked to personal vendettas, critics say.
Blasphemy convictions are common, although the death sentence has never been carried out. Most convictions are thrown out on appeal, but angry mobs have killed many people accused of blasphemy.