Published: 14:00 GMT Standard Time - Wednesday 02 March 2011
Pakistan’s only Christian government minister shot dead
Country/Region: Pakistan, South and East Asia
Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was killed for his opposition to the blasphemy law
Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who opposed the country's controversial "blasphemy law", has been shot dead in Islamabad.
He died after gunmen opened fire on his car as he was travelling to work this morning (2 March). The Pakistani Taliban told BBC Urdu they carried out the attack, and pamphlets attributed to them and al-Qaeda were found at the scene. They warned that anyone who criticised the blasphemy law would be shot.
Mr Bhatti (42) had received death threats for urging reform of the blasphemy law and because of his support for Christian mother-of-five Aasia Bibi, who was sentenced to death under it last November. But he remained defiant, saying last month, "I have been told by pro-Taliban religious extremists that if I will continue to speak against the blasphemy law, I will be beheaded." But he said his faith gave him strength:
As a Christian, I believe Jesus is my strength. He has given me a power and wisdom and motivation to serve suffering humanity. I follow the principles of my conscience, and I am ready to die and sacrifice my life for the principles I believe.
Mr Bhatti's death comes just three weeks after he retained his ministerial position in a major government reshuffle - a decision that Pakistani Christians hailed as "astounding". It also follows the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, who was gunned down by one of his own bodyguards in January because he also had spoken out against the blasphemy law and supported Aasia Bibi.
MP Sherry Rehman, a Muslim, who put forward an amendment in parliament that sought to abolish the death penalty for defiling the name of Muhammad, has also received multiple death threats. She was forced to withdraw the private member's bill last month.
In the wake of a hostile Islamist backlash to proposed amendments, the government has repeatedly stated that it has no plans to change the law.
How the blasphemy law affects non-Muslims
The so-called blasphemy law, Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code, is often misused to settle personal scores and grudges. Two parts of the law, 295-B and 295-C, are particularly problematic for non-Muslims because of their severe punishments and because they protect only Islam rather than all religions.
Section 295-B (added in 1982) makes desecration of the Qur'an punishable by mandatory life imprisonment, while under section 295-C "defiling the name of Muhammad" has carried a mandatory death sentence since 1991. The extreme sentence for defiling the name of Muhammad reflects the passionate veneration for Muhammad which is typical of South Asian Islam.
Because there are extremely severe mandatory punishments for some of the offences and yet no penalty for false accusation, the law is wide open to abuse. Many Muslims and non-Muslims have been targeted by malicious false accusations.
But Christians and other non-Muslims are particularly vulnerable to accusations by Muslims, especially under Section 295-C where there is often no evidence except one person's word against another's. This vulnerability is due to a tendency for the judiciary in the lower courts to believe the word of a Muslim over the word of a non-Muslim - in line with the teachings of sharia.
Though no-one has yet been executed under Section 295-C, some of those charged (such as brothers Rashid and Sajid Emmanuel) have been murdered by zealous Muslims, and sometimes their relatives and communities have also been attacked. Many have spent months or years in custody while their cases are considered. After acquittal they cannot return to their homes because of the danger of assassination, even if the courts have found them innocent.
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