By Zeeshan Haider
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan must not buckle to extremism, President Asif Ali Zardari said on Thursday, a day after Taliban militants killed his government's only Christian minister for challenging a law on blasphemy toward Islam.
The assassination of Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti in broad daylight on Wednesday threatens to further destabilize the nuclear-armed U.S. ally where many fear a strain of violent religious conservatism is becoming more mainstream in society.
Zardari, head of a government many Pakistanis hold in little regard, said Bhatti's killing was the result of a "negative mindset and intolerance" that had led to the killing of a provincial governor in January.
Punjab governor Salman Taseer was also shot dead, by his own bodyguard, for his staunch opposition to the blasphemy law that mandates the death sentence for anyone insulting Islam.
"We have to fight this mindset and defeat them. We will not be intimidated nor will we retreat," the official APP news agency quoted Zardari as saying.
"Such acts will not deter the government from eliminating extremism and terrorism," he said. "Shahbaz fell victim to the negative mindset and intolerance that also took the lives of... Benazir Bhutto and Punjab Governor Salman Taseer."
Former prime minister Bhutto, who was Zardari's wife, was killed by militants in 2007.
Zardari's fears for Pakistan's future were echoed by several newspapers and lawmakers from minority communities in the parliament who also called on the government to take a firm stand against extremists.
"Mr. Bhatti's brutal assassination has once again highlighted the fact that we are fast turning into a violent society," the liberal Daily Times newspaper said in its editorial.
"This is not the time to be frightened into silence. It is time to implement the law and not surrender in front of extremists."
Condemnation poured in from around the world after news of Bhatti's killing broke, with the Church of England and the Vatican decrying the violence against Christians in Pakistan.
"I hope the government of Pakistan will not only hold the killers to account, but reflect on how it can more effectively confront the extremism which is poisoning Pakistani society," United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said from Geneva on Wednesday.
The controversial blasphemy law has been in the spotlight since last November, when a court sentenced a Christian mother of four to death after her neighbors complained she had insulted Prophet Muhammad. Both Taseer and Bhatti championed the cause of the woman, a farmhand.
Al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban militants, fighting to bring down the state, had called for Bhatti's death because of his attempts to amend the law.
These killings, along with frequent militant attacks and chronic economic problems have raised fears for the future of the U.S.-ally, where the unpopular coalition government is struggling to cope.
Ties between the two old allies have hit new lows after the arrest in January of Raymond Davis, a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency contractor, who shot dead two armed men in the city of Lahore. The United States says Davis has immunity, but Pakistan has said it is for the courts to decide.
Davis is on trial for murder, and the second hearing in his case was adjourned on Thursday. His immunity hearing is March 14.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani announced three days of official mourning for Bhatti's death and said flags would fly at half-mast on Friday. Police said they had detained around 20 people for questioning.
Zardari's government has repeatedly said it would not change the blasphemy law, and officials have distanced themselves from anyone calling for amendments for fear of a backlash from extremists, a move that dismayed moderates and liberals.
"Of course the silent majority, which keeps silent over these things, also must bear responsibility," I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told the Express 24/7 television channel Wednesday night. "There's blood on their hands also."
The funeral of Bhatti, a Catholic, is expected to take place on Friday or Saturday, his family friends said.
Christians and other religious minorities have staged protests in several cities, denouncing his death and have called on the government to provide them protection.
"We are sons of the soil but still we are being discriminated against. But we cannot be suppressed," Aafia Nasir, a female Christian parliamentarian said in the National Assembly.
(Additional reporting by Chris Allbritton and Robert Evansin Geneva, editing by Miral Fahmy)