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A Blow to Religious Freedom in Pakistan

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

WASHINGTON -- Last week, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., was awakened by a 2:20 a.m. call. His first response was to fear bad news about his children or grandchildren. But when the American ambassador to Pakistan came on the line, Wolf immediately knew that his friend Shahbaz Bhatti had been killed. Bhatti was Pakistan's federal minister of minority affairs, the only Christian in the Cabinet and an advocate for the rights of religious minorities.

Wolf had sent letter after letter to the State Department, warning that Bhatti's life was "in grave danger." In December, along with then-Sen. Sam Brownback, he wrote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "to ask that Ambassador Cameron Munter be immediately instructed to communicate to the most senior officials of the government of Pakistan that Minister Bhatti's security is a matter of high importance to the United States."

The recriminations are now thick in Islamabad, but for whatever reason the Pakistani government did not protect Bhatti. On March 2, as he left his mother's house for a Cabinet meeting, his black Corolla was ambushed. Bhatti was shot at least 20 times. The killers left behind a pamphlet claiming credit for the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda.

A few months previously, Bhatti had given a video interview that eerily, though not unreasonably, anticipated his own murder. "I'm ready to die for a cause," he said, "I'm living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles." The most admirable and risky of those principles was Bhatti's opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy law, used to harass and intimidate religious minorities, including unpopular Muslim sects. Two months before Bhatti's death, the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, had been murdered for criticizing the law.

Other Pakistani politicians, according to Wolf, now live in "absolute fear." Pakistan's government has no interest in reforming the blasphemy law. Following Bhatti's murder, the two minutes of silence in the parliament to honor him was a political compromise, because no member dared to offer a public prayer on his behalf.

If Bhatti's murder is the last word, it will be a significant victory for extremism. America depends on cooperation with Pakistan to gain intelligence on tribal areas near Afghanistan. The United States is spending considerable amounts on aid to Pakistan, hoping to bring stability to lawless regions. But the political case for billions in civilian and military assistance becomes complicated if the Pakistani government seems helpless amid chaos, intimidated by radicalism and desperate to appease the unappeasable.

Events such as the murder of Bhatti elicit a difficult balance of attitudes. Some view every such killing as a confirmation of violence as the essence of Islam, thereby feeding the apocalyptic civilizational struggle that extremists fondly seek. Others, particularly in diplomatic circles, downplay or ignore the role of religion in international affairs -- an awkward topic on which they know little.

The alternative to a conflict of civilizations or uncomfortable silence is the steady, principled promotion of religious freedom. Freedom of conscience is not only an expression of respect for human dignity; it is essential to the consolidation of democratic institutions. Nations that honor religious freedom are far more likely to respect other rights. Nations that allow or encourage the oppression of religious minorities are enabling and rewarding extremism.

American leverage in these matters is limited, but it is worth applying what we have -- something the Obama administration, to this point, has not done. Its National Security Strategy avoids the topic. It did not appoint an ambassador at large for international religious freedom -- a congressionally mandated position -- until a year and a half after it took office. (The confirmation of that ambassador, by the way, is now held up by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.) "This has not gotten," said Clinton at a recent hearing, "the level of attention and concern that it should. ... I think we need to do much more to stand up for the rights of religious minorities."

This was precisely what Bhatti was doing -- defending the rights of believers in every faith, not just his own. But the source of his courage in the cause of pluralism was clear: "These Taliban threaten me. But I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of (the) cross, and I am following the cross."

Which he followed all the way to the end.

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