The United States is expressing shock and outrage at the Wednesday assassination of Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who had sought to amend a law mandating a death penalty for insulting Islam. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the killing, attributed to Taliban militants, is part of an alarming trend of religious intolerance in South Asia and the Middle East.
The tone of U.S. reaction was set by President Barack Obama, who in a written statement called the Bhatti assassination a horrific act of violence, and said he was deeply saddened by the death.
Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet member, became the second senior Pakistani official to be assassinated for opposing the blasphemy law. In January, Punjabi provincial governor Salman Taseer was killed by one of his bodyguards.
President Obama said Bhatti fought for and gave his life for universal values that Pakistanis, Americans and others around the world hold dear - the rights to speak one’s mind, practice one’s religion and be free from discrimination based on one’s background or beliefs.
Appearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the killing was an attack not only on one man but on the values of tolerance and respect for all faiths championed by Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. "I recently had the opportunity to meet with Minister Bhatti. He was a very impressive, courageous man. He was a patriot, he was a man of great conviction, he cared deeply for Pakistan and he had dedicated his life to helping the least among us," she said.
Clinton said Bhatti was well aware of what she said was a "drum beat of threats against him," yet he had agreed to continue as minister for minorities after Pakistan’s recent cabinet reshuffle.
She said she was shocked and outraged by his death, which she said was regrettably part of a broader trend of intolerance toward religious minorities. "The attack on Christians in Iraq, the attacks on the Copts in Egypt, the attack on minority Islamic sects in Pakistan and elsewhere is a matter of deep distress to me personally and to our government. It runs against all of our values and we are going to be doing all we can to support the freedom of religion, the freedom of conscience and to work with governments everywhere so that they uphold universal values," she said.
The Bhatti assassination was also condemned by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent monitoring panel set up by a 1998 act of Congress.
Commission chairman Leonard Leo said the killing demonstrates the barbarity of Pakistan’s system of blasphemy laws, which he said do not keep the peace but rather embolden extremists.
Leo said after the killings of Bhatti and Punjabi leader Taseer that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari must find the courage to enact meaningful blasphemy law reforms "or Pakistan may well be lost."