Pakistan's federal minister for minorities was recently gunned down by Islamist hardliners in Islamabad. Shahbaz Bhatti is the second senior Pakistani official killed this year for speaking out against the country's anti-blasphemy laws.
Mr. Bhatti was the sole Christian cabinet member in the majority-Muslim country of Pakistan. Moderate voices in Pakistan are being increasingly silenced by Muslim extremists. Mr. Bhatti was one of the few leaders openly advocating the reform of the anti-blasphemy laws that make insulting Islam a capital offense.
U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the assassination in the strongest possible terms: "Minister Bhatti fought for and sacrificed his life for the universal values that Pakistanis, Americans and people around the world hold dear – the right to speak one’s mind, to practice one’s religion as one chooses, and to be free from discrimination based on one’s background or beliefs."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "This is an attack not only on one man, but on the values of tolerance and respect for people of all faiths and backgrounds championed by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founding father."
In January, the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was also gunned down for expressing opposition to the anti-blasphemy laws, arguing that they were used as tools to settle vendettas and persecute members of the religious minorities that make up less than 5 percent of the population.
Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokeswoman for President Asif Ali Zardari, said in a statement that "the time has come for the federal government and provincial governments to speak out and to take a strong stand against these murderers to save the very essence of Pakistan."
Human Rights Watch's representative in Pakistan Dayan Hasan called on the Pakistani government to arrest those who incite and praise murderers. Those voices who oppose intolerance and religious extremism in Pakistan need to boldly make their voices heard.
Mr. Bhatti led a government investigation last year into the case of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. He objected to the sentence, saying she was innocent and should be pardoned. In one of his last interviews, Mr. Bhatti said he would continue to push for changes in the blasphemy laws. "I can't compromise," he said, "I want to give hope for those people whose voices are under fear and threat."
The United States remains committed to working with the government and people of Pakistan to build a more stable and prosperous future for all – a future in which violent extremists are no longer able to silence the voices of tolerance and peace.