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Bhatti knew about threat to his life from Taliban, Qaeda

Last updated: 02 March, 2011
Islamabad, Mar 2 (PTI): 19:07 IST

Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, gunned down by militants today for calling for changes in Pakistan's blasphemy law, had often spoken about threats to his life from the Taliban and extremist elements in recent weeks.

Bhatti, the only member of the federal cabinet from the minority Christian community, first received threats when he spoke in support of Christians who were attacked by an extremist group at Gojra in Punjab in 2009.

Fresh threats came his way when he spoke in support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death last year for alleged blasphemy. "The forces of violence – banned militant organizations, the Taliban and pro-Al Qaida (elements) – they want to impose their radical philosophy on Pakistan.

And whoever stands against their radical philosophy, they threaten them," Bhatti told BBC recently. "I am a follower of the cross and I am ready to die for a cause. I am living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights. These threats and warnings cannot change my opinion and principles.

I will prefer to die for my principles and for the justice of my community rather than compromise (because of) these threats," he said. Bhatti, 42, was ambushed and killed by four gunmen a short distance from his home this morning. The banned Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing.

By a strange twist of fate, Bhatti's 88-year-old father Jacob Bhatti suffered a heart attack on January 4 when he learnt that Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer had been assassinated by a police guard for opposing the blasphemy law.

The minister's father died seven days later. "He knew that I was very close to Taseer and I am also the target of extremists so he could not bear that," Bhatti said about his father in a recent interview.

A founding member of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, Bhatti joined the ruling Pakistan People's Party in 2002. He was elected a member of parliament from a seat reserved for minorities and made Minority Affairs Minister in 2008. He retained his portfolio during a recent shake-up of the federal cabinet.

Bhatti earned the ire of extremists and militants in November last year after he submitted a report on Asia Bibi to President Asif Ali Zardari in which he said the Christian woman had been wrongly charged for blasphemy.

Bhatti also recommended that Asia Bibi should be pardoned. The slain minister referred to threats from militants in several recent interviews.

"I have been told by pro-Taliban religious extremists that if I will continue to speak against the blasphemy law, I will be beheaded," Bhatti told the Catholic Herald during a trip to Canada last month to raise awareness for his campaign to reform the harsh blasphemy law.

In an interview with The Christian Post newspaper last month, Bhatti said he was the "number one target" of the Taliban after Punjab Governor Taseer was assassinated in January 4.

"I received a call from (a) Taliban commander and he said, ‘If you will bring any changes in the blasphemy law and speak on this issue, then you will be killed. And in the protest processions, religious extremists burn the effigies of the and mine.

And I have received a lot of fatwas of killing by the extremist Talibans," he said. Parliamentarian Akram Masih Gill, also a Christian, told the media that Bhatti had never married as he was committed to fighting for the rights of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

The Christian community, which makes up about 1. 5 per cent of Pakistan's 180 million population, was shocked by the assassination. Margaret D'Souza, a school teacher, said the killing was aimed at creating fear among the country's non-Muslims and mistrust among people. "Such attempts will not deter us and we are not going leave our country," she said.

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