Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for minorities, had declared he was prepared to die for his convictions after Salman Taseer, governor of the country's Punjab province, was killed Jan. 5 by a bodyguard who said he was angry that the politician opposed Pakistan's blasphemy laws.
Bhatti was on his way to work in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, when unidentified gunmen sprayed his car with bullets, according to news reports. A radical Islamic group associated with the Taliban terrorist movement reportedly claimed responsibility for the assassination in a note left at the scene.
Bhatti had been campaigning to reform the blasphemy laws, which had been in an international spotlight since a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, had been sentenced to death for "insulting" Islam.
Taseer, the Punjab governor, had publicly advocated a pardon for the woman, also called Asia Noreen in press reports, before he was murdered. In February, Bhatti acknowledged he was receiving death threats and told the London Telegraph newspaper he would not stop speaking out against the blasphemy law.
"I have been told by pro-Taliban religious extremists that if I will continue to speak against the blasphemy law, I will be beheaded," Bhatti reportedly said during a trip to Canada. "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."
Bhatti knew he was "living on borrowed time," said the president of an international Christian organization focused on human rights.
"It is heartrending to receive this news but is unfortunately not unexpected," Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern, said in a press statement. "The last time I was with Shabaz in 2010, I asked him about his security and if the Islamists were closing in. He had lived under the cloud of this eventuality for many years and he knew he was on borrowed time."
Bhatti "courageously defended the rights of persecuted Christians in Pakistan despite living under the constant threat of death," King added. "He died as a martyr for a cause he believed in."
Bhatti's murder is not just tragic, but horrifying, said Nina Shea, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
"Death threats were a constant in Bhatti's life for many years. He once told me that he had never married because he did not think it would be fair to a wife and children to subject them to this concern," Shea said in a press statement. "His work was his life: At the end of each day, he left his government Cabinet office and headed over to his office at the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, where he continued to help Pakistan's persecuted minorities until late into the night."
Shea recalled a comment Bhatti made in September 2009, when he received USCIRF's first religious freedom medallion: "I personally stand for religious freedom, even if I will pay the price of my life," Bhatti had said. "I live for this principle and I want to die for this principle."
Shea said Pakistan's blasphemy law "stands in the way of other key reforms and secures the place within society of an ever-radicalizing political Islam."
"What happened today to Shahbaz Bhatti is tragic and, to Pakistan, even more horrifying."
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor and senior writer for Baptist Press.
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