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Christians and other minority groups of Pakistan were left in a state of shock when the Pakistani Minority Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was recently assassinated on his way to a cabinet meeting. The gunmen had been waiting for Mr Bhatti close to his mother’s home and attacked his vehicle in broad daylight. The driver was spared but Mr Bhatti was pronounced dead on arrival to the nearby Shifa hospital. In January, the Pakistani government’s only Christian minister told the BBC that he would defy the death threats he has received from Islamist militant in the wake of his efforts to reform a controversial blasphemy law. In a previous interview, Mr Bhatti predicted that anyone who stood up against radical forces would be in harms way but that he himself would rather die than compromise his beliefs. Four months later, his statement rings a hollow truth.
The controversy over the law began in November 2010 when a Christian woman was sentenced to death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five, was arrested after a row over a water source in her village and has become the first woman sentenced to death on the charge of blasphemy. Human rights organizations, the Pope and several other international voices condemned the sentencing and called for the law to be abolished. However, the law receives large support from the Pakistani people, which is mainly Muslim, while the Christian minority represent only 2% of the entire population.
The government has been reluctant to address the law, claiming its removal could inspire widespread anger among extremists and their supporters. Only a few prominent figures have dared to speak out in favor of its abolishment but the consequences has proven to be dire. On January 4, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by one of his bodyguards in response to his opposition of the law. Many Muslims saw this as an act of heroism and demanded that the gunman was not to face trial. Another outspoken minority representative, female MP Sherry Rehman, proposed a bill to amend the blasphemy law in an attempt to limit the miscarriage of justice and remove its death penalty. The bill was rejected, however, and Ms Rehman told the BBC that she receives hourly death threats for her position on the matter.
The critique of the blasphemy law is not directed at its favoritism of the Quran. According to Omar Waraich of the independent, talking to AlJazeera, “The problem with this law is that it is very vaguely worded, used arbitrarily, [and] it stops the state from being a neutral actor.” He continues – “vulnerable sections of the community are persecuted as a result – or Islamist militants and other vigilantes use this as a means of cover when they pursue their own sectarian agenda or even personal vendettas against people of a minority faith.”
In many cases, the law has been misused to bring false charges against minority groups in order to settle arguments and acquire land and property. Despite no one having been subsequently executed after sentencing so far, there are over 30 known cases of the accused being killed by lynch-mobs – even after acquittal.
Groups standing by the effort to end the blasphemy fear that extremist attitudes have taken over society. The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), a UK-based organization for Pakistani religious freedom, expressed deep concerns for the future: “It is a very desperate situation for Pakistani Christians as Mr Bhatti was one of the few people in Parliament who dared to speak up for their rights. With his death, Christians now have no voice in government.” One thing is sure, Christians and other minorities in Pakistan are left with one question: Who’s next?