March 14, 2011

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican condemned the killing of a Catholic government minister in Pakistan who had spoken out against anti-blasphemy laws.

"The assassination of the Pakistani minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, is a new and terribly serious act of violence," Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said March 2.

"It demonstrates that the pope is correct in insisting on the issue of violence against Christians and against religious freedom in general."

Bhatti, the first Catholic to serve in the cabinet, received several threats against his life after criticizing the country's anti-blasphemy laws, which have been used to persecute Christians and other religious minorities.

Bhatti was received by Pope Benedict last September and spoke about his commitment to promoting peaceful coexistence among religious communities.

He was attacked in his car in Islamabad March 2, when gunmen opened fire on his vehicle and proceeded to drag him out, according to press reports. He was immediately taken to the hospital, where doctors were unable to save him from massive gunshot wounds.

'UNSPEAKABLE ACT'

Lombardi called for prayers for the victim and condemnation of "the unspeakable act of violence." He also assured Pakistani Christians who suffer from hatred of the Church's closeness to them.

Lombardi urged "that everyone will now realize the dramatic urgency of the need to defend religious freedom and Christians targeted by violence and persecution."

Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, president of the Pakistani Catholic bishops' conference, led an emergency meeting of the country's Christian leaders.

The leaders urged the government to "go beyond the rhetoric of 'minorities enjoying all the rights in the country' and take practical steps to curb extremism in Pakistan."

Since the Jan. 4 assassination of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who defended a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, Bhatti had been one of the only public figures to speak out against the laws.

PROMOTED HARMONY

Despite threats, Bhatti continued promoting religious and social harmony.

Bishop Rufin Anthony of Islamabad-Rawalpindi told AsiaNews, "The minister lived under constant threat, and the government did not know how to adequately guarantee his safety."

Anthony knew Bhatti's daily routine, saying, "He would go to see his mother, he would pray with her, then he would call me and ask me every morning to pray for him."

The bishop was particularly affected by the murder because he knew Bhatti as a child and said he had been a devout Catholic from a very young age.

He described Bhatti as "a courageous, fearless man who had taken a very strong position in support of minorities."

Anthony believed that because Bhatti was so outspoken about minority rights "the minister paid the price with his blood."

About 10 million Christians, mostly Catholic, live in Pakistan, which has a population of more than 178 million.