Islamabad: The only Christian minister in the Pakistan government was shot dead by assailants as he left his home in the capital Wednesday morning 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, 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 neighborhood, 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, the inspector general of Islamabad police, Wajid Durrani, said. 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 Mr. Bhatti.
Mr. 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.
The identity of Mr. Bhatti's killers is not known but suspicion immediately fell on members of extremist militant groups. Mr. 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, Mr. Qadri was showered with flower petals.
The killing of Mr. Bhatti is likely to further expose the depth of religious conservatism among ordinary Pakistanis and in the educated middle class, who at the same time are fed up with the shortcomings of a feeble civilian government unable to deliver basic needs.
"This is the mindset adopted in the 1980s when Pakistan and the United States were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan," said Athar Minallah, a liberal leader of the lawyers movement, who has condemned the killing of Mr. Taseer, and now Mr. Bhatti. "It says infidels are allowed to be killed."
Islamist teachings were adopted in the school curriculum in the 1980s under the military rule of the pro-American dictator, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, and have remained intact since. Mr. Minallah insisted this militant view remained a minority but "the collapse of the state has given the mindset this space."
President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani strongly condemned the killing of Mr. Bhatti. But neither attended the funeral of Mr. Taseer, leaving the impression that they were afraid to show such public sympathy for their colleague. Senior members of the Pakistani military also stayed away from that funeral.
In a sign of the retreat of the ruling party on the question of enacting more tolerant laws, Prime Minister Gilani pledged in Parliament earlier this year that the government had no intention of pursuing the reform agenda on the blasphemy laws. An alliance of conservative religious parties showed their strength in the major cities in early February, staging rallies of tens of thousands that called the government lackeys of the United States, and too reliant on a reform agenda. Alarmed by the rising tide of militant sentiments, senior American officials suggested to Mr. Zardari and Mr. Gilani that they make public speeches on the need for tolerance -- "Churchillian" presentations, said one diplomat -- but the leaders had cited lack of security and fear for their lives.
Mr. Bhatti had expressed nervousness about speaking out and had shunned public appearances, his aides said. One of Mr. Bhatti's favorite sayings came from the inaugural address in 1947 of the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who declared that Pakistan would not be a theocracy, and all religions would be respected. "I am receiving threats on speaking against the blasphemy law but my faith gives me strength and we will not allow the handful of extremists to fulfill their agenda," Mr. Bhatti said shortly before his death.
The international advocacy group Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that Mr. Bhatti's killing represented the "bitter fruit of appeasement of extremist and militant groups" in the last several months. It called for an "urgent" reappraisal of the "political cowardice" that had overtaken the ruling party in the government, the Pakistan Peoples Party.
A month before Mr. Taseer was killed, the ruling party, under pressure from conservative religious groups and like-minded politicians, backed off from its support of reform of the blasphemy law.
Mr. Bhatti, a relative newcomer to politics, had been at the forefront of the campaign to change the blasphemy laws but by December had become isolated on that question within his own party. Aides to Mr. Bhatti said Wednesday he had feared an attempt on his life and requested security guards. There were was no sign of guards, however at the scene of the ambush.
The minister's government driver rushed Mr. Bhatti to the hospital after the attack and he was pronounced dead.