ONE of the leading liberals in Pakistan, Salman Taseer, who had fought to overturn the country’s punitive blasphemy laws, has been shot and killed by a bodyguard.
Mr Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, had also spoken up in defence of the Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death last year for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad (News, 19, 26 November).
Mr Taseer was shot at close range, on Tuesday, by his bodyguard, at a shopping centre in Islamabad.
The Interior Minister of Pakistan, Rehman Malik, said at a news conference shortly after the shooting: “The police guard who killed him says he did this because Mr Taseer recently defended the proposed amendments to the blasphemy law. This is what he told the police after surrendering himself.”
The Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, declared three days’ national mourning. He also ordered an immediate inquiry into Mr Taseer’s killing, and appealed for calm. The assassination has rocked the country, already in a fragile state as the government struggles to shore up enough political support to maintain a majority.
Mr Taseer, aged 66, was a senior member of the Pakistan People’s Party. He was said by friends to be aware that his defence of Mrs Bibi would put him at risk. On New Year’s Eve, he posted on Twitter: “I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury has also spoken out in support of Mrs Bibi, describing her as “an inspiration and witness to Christians and people of goodwill around the world”.
In an address read out at Wakefield Cathedral before Christmas, the Archbishop stated that he was following the situation in Pakistan with “deep concern”. He repeated his call for reform of the blasphemy law, which he said had been “so abused as to seriously damage the reputation of Pakistan and of Islam in so many minds around the world”.
He said: “I repeat my call for reform and amendment of the blasphemy legislation, and for the proper protection of the accused and their families.”
The chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Mervyn Thomas, condemned the murder of Mr Taseer. “We offer our sincere condolences to his family and community. His death is a tragic reminder of the extreme danger faced by all those who stand for justice in opposition to the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, whether politicians, journalists, lawyers, or activists. How many more lives must be destroyed before this legislation is repealed?”
Pope Benedict also condemned the persecution of Christians, in Europe and across the world, in his Christmas and New Year messages.
Speaking on New Year’s Day, he said: “I wish to say a word to the Christian communities suffering from persecution, discrimination, violence, and intolerance, particularly in Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East, and especially in the Holy Land — a place chosen and blessed by God.
“I assure them once more of my paternal affection and prayers, and I ask all those in authority to act promptly to end every injustice against the Christians living in those lands.
“I also express my hope that in the West, and especially in Europe, there will be an end to hostility and prejudice against Christians because they are resolved to orient their lives in a way consistent with the values and principles expressed in the gospel.”
Question of the week: Is the persecution of Christians getting worse?