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Pakistanis Mourn Murdered Minister


Pakistani Christians rally against the killing of Catholic minister Shahbaz Bhatti in Multan, Pakistan, March 3, 2011.

Pakistani Christians rally against the killing of Catholic minister Shahbaz Bhatti in Multan, Pakistan, March 3, 2011.

Minority Christians and civil rights activists have taken to the streets throughout Pakistan to protest the assassination of the country's only Christian member of the federal Cabinet. Minister of Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down Wednesday, after challenging Pakistan's blasphemy law.

Pakistani investigators have issued sketches of suspected attackers but have not reported any progress a day after gunmen opened fire on Minister of Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti near his residence in Islamabad.

Militants linked to Taliban and al-Qaida extremists have claimed responsibility, saying they killed the politician for opposing Pakistan's blasphemy law. He has become the second high-profile official killed this year for supporting reforms to the controversial legislation which carries the death penalty for insulting Islam.

Two months ago, the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was shot dead by one of his official police guards who said he killed Taseer for criticizing the blasphemy law.

Bhatti's assassination on Wednesday drew condemnation from both Pakistani and international leaders. Members of the country's minority Christian community joined by civil rights activists are staging protest rallies around the country to demand justice.

During a protest in Islamabad Thursday, demonstrators criticized the government for failing to protect Bhatti, who had been receiving death threats for opposing the blasphemy law.

"It's a matter of shame and it's a matter of extreme sorrow for every Pakistani Muslim today," said Ghazala Minnallah, a law teacher by profession, who was part of the rally. "Our heads are bowed in shame because we are so helpless and we cannot do anything about it."

She said that the government has failed to protect its citizens and urged Islamic clerics in the country to help defuse religious extremism.

"They are the only people who can try and bring some sanity in this madness because no one is going to listen to you or me or to the government," she said. "Yes, people will listen to religious leaders when they tell the people that this not Islam. So it is their responsibility to come out and to try and save this country from further anarchy because that is where we are heading."

Human rights activist Rehana Hashmi says that religious extremists are using violence to silence critics of laws that discriminate against non-Muslims and women in Pakistan.

"We are all determined that this voice is not silenced," said Hashmi. "There will be many more voices [raised] against these discriminatory laws and all discriminatory behaviors."

On Thursday, lawmakers representing Pakistani minorities in parliament staged a symbolic walkout during a meeting of the National Assembly. They demanded the government make all possible efforts to bring Bhatti's killers to justice.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani declared three days of official mourning, while vowing his government will arrest and punish the culprits.

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