for The Los Angeles Times on March 4, 2011
Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Gunmen killed the only Christian member of Pakistan's Cabinet on Wednesday in Islamabad, the second assassination this year of a top official who had opposed the country's controversial blasphemy law and championed the rights of its beleaguered minorities.
The slaying of Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, 42, underscored the reach of extremism in Pakistan, a Muslim country founded on the principles of minority inclusion but increasingly unable to counter the influence of hard-line Islamist parties and clerics.
Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, was an outspoken critic of Pakistan's blasphemy law, which makes it a crime to utter any derogatory remarks or insult in any way the prophet Muhammad, the Koran or Islam.
Critics of the law say it can be exploited to settle scores against adversaries or persecute minorities. A Christian woman, Asia Bibi, 45, faces execution for allegedly violating the blasphemy law.
Bhatti had spoken out against the sentence handed to Asia Bib, as had another top Pakistani liberal, Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer. On Jan. 4, Taseer, 65, was assassinated in Islamabad by a 26-year-old police commando assigned to guard him. The officer, Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, has said he killed the governor because of his opposition to the blasphemy law.
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