The Vatican has strongly condemned the assassination of Pakistan's Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti and stepped up its appeal for greater religious freedom and protection of Christians from persecution.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi described the slaying of the Pakistani politician as an “unspeakable” crime and “another terrible episode of violence.”
Bhatti, a 42 year-old Catholic, was gunned down by militants in Islamabad March 2 after calling for changes to Pakistan's blasphemy law. A note found at the crime scene has led authorities to believe Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a radical Muslim group, was responsible for the murder.
Lombardi said the atrocity “shows how right the Pope is in his persistent remarks concerning violence against Christians and against religious freedom in general.”
He also noted that Bhatti was the first Catholic to hold such an office in Pakistan and that he was received by Benedict XVI as recently as September last year. During the meeting at the pontiff's summer residence near Rome, Bhatti praised Benedict for his efforts towards dialogue and peacemaking. The Vatican today paid tribute to how Bhatti “bore witness to his own commitment to peaceful coexistence among the religious communities of his country.”
"Our prayers for the victim, our condemnation for this unspeakable act of violence, our closeness to Pakistani Christians who suffer hatred, are accompanied by an appeal that everyone may become aware of the urgent importance of defending both religious freedom and Christians who are subject to violence and persecution,” the Vatican statement read.
Bhatti was the only Christian member of Pakistan's federal Cabinet. He first received death threats after voicing his support for Christians who were attacked by an extremist group at Gojra in Punjab in 2009. The threats were renewed when he spoke in support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death last year for alleged blasphemy.
Recently, the minister had often spoken about threats to his life from the Taliban and extremist elements. In an interview given four months ago to the group First Step Forum, and broadcast by the BBC, Bhatti predicted his fate saying: "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.”
He said banned militant organizations such as the Taliban and pro-al-Qaida groups “want to impose their radical philosophy on Pakistan.”
Bhatti's death follows the murder of Punjab's governor, Salmaan Taseer, who was killed Jan. 4 by his bodyguard for opposing the same blasphemy law.
Pope Benedict has called for a repeal of the law and the release of Bibi, who remains in solitary confinement for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammed in front of Muslim colleagues in 2009.
The Pope has also made a series of strong appeals for religious freedom in recent weeks. In his first two major addresses of this year — his World Day of Peace Message on Jan 1st and an annual address to diplomats Jan 10th — Benedict XVI stressed the importance of safeguarding religious freedom and protecting religious minorities.
The Vatican has become alarmed at an increase in cases of persecution, particularly in Muslim-majority states, as well as the growing marginalization of religion in general in an increasingly secular West. Benedict XVI has often stressed that freedom of all religion is a fundamental human right that must be safeguarded or society runs the risk of committing “deep injustice” against its citizens.
Observers say this is one of the main reasons why he has called on representatives of the world's religions to gather in Assisi, Italy, later this year for a World Day of Prayer for Peace. John Paul II held two similar meetings, in 1986 and 2002.
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