Shahbaz Bhatti's murder met by unanimous condemnation from church leaders

Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated today by gunmen in the capital Islamabad moments after leaving his home to attend a cabinet meeting. He was shot several times and rushed to Shifa Hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival.

He was targeted because of his commitment to reforming the blasphemy laws, which impose the death sentence on insulting Islam.

Dr Rowan Williams and Dr John Sentamu said it was with the “greatest shock and sorrow” that they had received news of Mr Bhatti’s assassination.

“This further instance of sectarian bigotry and violence will increase anxiety worldwide about the security of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan, and we urge that the Government of Pakistan will do all in its power to bring to justice those guilty of such crimes and to give adequate protection to minorities,” they said.

“Meanwhile, we assure Mr Bhatti’s family of our prayers and deep sympathy, and promise our continuing support for all those of whatever faiths who are working for justice and stability in Pakistan.”

In a statement, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Bhatti’s murder was a “terribly grave new act of violence” which “demonstrates that the Pope’s insistent addresses regarding violence against Christians and religious freedom have been justified”.

The Evangelical Alliance also expressed its shock over the death of Bhatti, the only Christian member of the Pakistani cabinet.

Steve Clifford, General Director of the Evangelical Alliance, said: “It is outrageous that the Pakistan Government seems unable to protect its minorities, and in particular Christians.”

Dr Don Horrocks, the Evangelical Alliance’s Head of Public Affairs, urged the Pakistan Government to take “strong action” against Bhatti’s killers.

He said: “The Pakistan government appears to be turning their backs on the problem. They repeatedly make concessions to those who would intimidate minorities, seeming at best passive, and at worst complicity, in the face of persecution of Christians and others.

“The Pakistan government must follow their condemnation of the cold-blooded murder of Shahbaz Bhatti with strong action to convict those responsible and to protect Christians from continued violence.”

Manoj Raithatha, Coordinator of the Evangelical Alliance’s South Asian Forum, appealed to Christians in the UK to pray and fast for fellow believers living in Pakistan and other hostile regions.

The murder of Bhatti has been met by grief and sorrow at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an organisation which worked closely with the minister for many years to improve conditions for Christians in Pakistan.

Bhatti left a lasting impression on UK Christians when he told a 2009 CSW conference in London that he lived for religious freedom and that he was "ready to die for this cause”.

CSW National Director Stuart Windsor, who knew Bhatti personally for the last 12 years, said the minister was a “true patriot who loved his country and wanted to see the realisation of [Pakistani founding father] Jinnah’s vision of a harmonious, pluralist society.

“He never achieved what he dedicated his life to – the eventual repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. But he tried, bravely and with indefatigable spirit, and his life was a blessing to many.”

CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas praised Bhatti for his commitment to tackling religious divisions and the social attitudes underpinning the blasphemy laws.

He pointed to an unprecedented joint declaration by Pakistani’s faith leaders condemning acts of terror, which Bhatti coordinated last July.

Mr Thomas said the minister had built “unprecedented bridges” between religious leaders and urged others to take up the mantle of his “pioneering” work.

He said: “Shahbaz Bhatti has tragically become another victim of violent intolerance and lawlessness in Pakistan.

“His loss will be felt keenly by all those pursuing justice and the rule of law.

“After the assassination of both [Punjab Governor] Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, many questions need to be asked about the government’s ability and willingness to protect those who speak out against extremism in Pakistan.

“They must bring to justice those responsible for these killings, without delay.”

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