The only Christian in Pakistan's cabinet and a vocal critic of the country's blasphemy laws was assassinated today in Islamabad.
Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a strong advocate for Christians' rights, was shot dead in his car as he pulled out of the driveway at his parents' home, according to the Associated Press news agency.
Pamphlets found at the scene attributed the killing to al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban and said Mr Bhatti had been targeted for his faith and because of his involvement in 'a committee reviewing the blasphemy laws'. The Pakistani Government has repeatedly insisted no such committee exists.
Eyewitnesses said gunmen opened fire on Mr Bhatti's car before fleeing the scene. Mr Bhatti, 42, had no bodyguards with him at the time.
Bhatti's death comes just weeks after the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, killed for his high-profile opposition to the blasphemy laws (Prayer Alert, January 12, 2011). He, like Mr Bhatti, had publicly spoken out about the death sentence given in November to Asia Bibi, a Punjab mother-of-five convicted of blasphemy.
Shahbaz Bhatti was one of the founding members of the organisation All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in 1985 and was widely considered a champion of religious minorities in Pakistan. Government officials immediately condemned Mr Bhatti's murder, denouncing militancy.
A close friend of Mr Bhatti told Release that he was 'heartbroken' by the news. He also spoke of his frustration at the lack of government protection for the Christian community in Pakistan.
'When a government minister is not secure, what is the position of Christians?' he told Release. 'We are like sheep extremists can come and slaughter us. The Government is not taking seriously its responsibility to protect the Christian community. You see some policemen outside churches on Sunday. But they are not enough. We need justice.'
Release CEO Andy Dipper paid tribute to Mr Bhatti and called on Christians to pray for his family and his attackers. He said: 'Shahbaz was an uncompromising supporter of minorities in Pakistan who face abuse and unfair treatment. He was fully aware of the risks in speaking out. Extremists have succeeded in destroying another good man.'
(Sources: Associated Press, BBC, Dawn online, The Guardian)
Ask God to comfort and protect Shahbaz Bhatti's family. Pray they will have a deeper revelation of God as their father and saviour through their grief. Pray God's protection over Release partners, who champion minorities' rights.
Pray for Mr Bhatti's attackers, that they will repent and come to know the love of Jesus. Pray too that the Pakistani authorities will take a tough stand against extremism and take up Mr Bhatti's mantle in promoting tolerance and equality for all.