Church leaders have condemned the brutal murder of Pakistan Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti.
Bhatti, the first Christian to be a member of the Pakistani President’s Cabinet, was gunned down Wednesday morning, local time.
"It is with the greatest shock and sorrow that we have heard of the assassination of Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti," said the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York, Dr. Rowan Williams and John Sentamu.
"This further instance of sectarian bigotry and violence will increase anxiety worldwide about the security of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan, and we urge that the Government of Pakistan will do all in its power to bring to justice those guilty of such crimes and to give adequate protection to minorities."
Bhatti was gunned down in his car shortly after leaving his parents' residence in Islamabad. A witness told Reuters that as he was leaving the driveway, a white Toyota Marin came from the other side. Two men got out and fired at the back seat, where Bhatti was seated, and then moved to the front and continued shooting.
Fliers at the scene, signed by two Islamist militant groups – al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban Punjab – described Bhatti as an "infidel" and warned others who oppose the country's blasphemy laws that the same fate awaits them.
Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, found it hard to express in words his response to the murder, especially as it came just a day after he received an upbeat email from Bhatti.
"Shahbaz Bhatti had become a good friend and was a great hero of the faith," he said in an email to colleagues.
Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, had spoken out against Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which he said were being abused to persecute religious minorities, including the tiny population of Christians. He was seeking reform, specifically an amendment, so that the law would not be used "as a tool of victimization," as he told France 24 earlier this year.
He also had defended a Christian mother, Asia Bibi, after she was sentenced to death in November for insulting the prophet Muhammad.
His positions angered extremists who issued death threats against him.
Though well aware of the threats and that he was the No. 1 target of the Taliban after Salman Taseer, Bhatti was committed to standing up for religious minorities and for human rights.
Bhatti is the second high-profile figure who has called for reform to be killed this year. Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, who denounced the blasphemy laws and promoted tolerance, was shot dead in January.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) called the latest murder "particularly chilling," coming so soon after the killing Taseer.
He lauded Bhatti as "a brave defender of all of Pakistan's religious and ethnic minorities."
"[H]is death is a loss to his country and his family," he said.
The Vatican, meanwhile, said the assassination reinforces what Pope Benedict XVI has been calling for – the need to protect Christians against violence.
"The assassination of … Bhatti ... is another terrible episode of violence. It shows how right the Pope is in his persistent remarks concerning violence against Christians and against religious freedom in general," the Vatican stated.
"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 many become aware of the urgent importance of defending both religious freedom and Christians who are subject to violence and persecution."