Pakistani Christians Protest Murder of Bhatti

Pakistani Christians took to the streets Wednesday to protest the fatal shooting of the nation's only Christian Cabinet member and to demand the government bring to justice the killers.

Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister of minorities affairs, perished in a hail of bullets as he left his mother's home by car Wednesday morning. Since then, the nation's Interior Minister Rehman Malik has increased security for federal ministers.

Leaders worldwide have condemned the attack.

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"I am deeply saddened by the assassination of Pakistan's Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti today in Islamabad, and condemn in the strongest possible terms this horrific act of violence," Obama said in a written statement.

"We offer our profound condolences to his family, loved ones and all who knew and worked with him."

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that the murder was "absolutely shocking news," and that it was "absolutely brutal and unacceptable."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the attack and urged Pakistan's government to take efforts to protect minority rights. The Vatican called the killing a "terribly grave act of violence."

Pakistan's nuclear rival, India, expressed sympathy for the slain minister.

"We convey our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family, the people and the government of Pakistan on the tragic assassination," said the Indian foreign ministry in a statement.

Religious Rights Champion and a Marked Man

Bhatti has been a longtime critic of Pakistan's blasphemy law, which makes insulting Islam punishable by heavy fines, imprisonment or death.

Opponents often point out the relative ease for which Muslims misuse the law to oppress religious groups, stifle free speech, and settle old scores. Often, the accused are convicted on unsubstantiated rumor or witness testimony.

For his dedication against the blasphemy law, Bhatti became a marked man.

Just last month, he told The Christian Post that he could be killed "in the struggle to protect the religious freedom, the rights of minorities, and to raise the voice against the blasphemy law."

"But I will continue to follow the principles that I believe," he said resolutely.

Earlier this year, Bhatti's friend and Punjab province governor, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by a bodyguard. Prior to his death, Taseer was one of the more vocal advocates calling for the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was accused of blaspheming the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.

Although she denied committing the offense, Bibi was imprisoned in June 2009 and has been handed the death sentence. She currently awaits a court hearing date for her appeal.

In the predominantly Muslim nation, religious minorities including Christians are often the target of violence and discrimination. At this time, Christians constitute about 1.5 percent of the total Pakistani population

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