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LAHORE, Pakistan — The only Christian cabinet minister in the Pakistani government was shot dead Wednesday two months after the assassination of another liberal politician, raising questions about how firmly Pakistan’s government is tackling Islamist extremism.

The slain official, Shahbaz Bhatti, 41, the minister of minorities, had made a life’s work of campaigning for tolerance in Pakistan, which is 95 percent Muslim, and most recently became a lonely voice, with a handful of others, in a campaign to reform the harsh blasphemy law.

After the assassination in January of the Punjab Province governor, Salman Taseer, who had also publicly called for changes to the blasphemy law, Mr. Bhatti feared for his life but continued, though more quietly, to work toward his dream of ultimately repealing the law, his associates said.

The law, introduced in the 1970s, was amended in 1986 under Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the American-backed military leader, to include the death penalty for those accused of speaking against the Prophet Muhammad.

Mr. Bhatti, the founder of a nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping Christians and Hindus, was particularly focused on abolishing the death penalty, said his press secretary, Rahael Gill.

President Asif Ali Zardari told members of his governing Pakistan Peoples Party at a meeting in the southern port city of Karachi that Mr. Bhatti was a victim of a “negative mind-set and intolerance,” according to the state-run news service.

But Mr. Zardari, fearful for his personal security, failed to attend the funeral of his colleague, Mr. Taseer, and the few members of his party who favored changing the blasphemy law have been sidelined in the last two months and effectively silenced. Mr. Taseer’s killer has been hailed as a hero in rallies held by conservative religious parties.

Mr. Bhatti was heading for a cabinet meeting when three or four gunmen ambushed his car outside his house in a middle-class neighborhood of the capital, Islamabad, and shot him multiple times as he sat in the back seat, the police said.

The killers, dressed in traditional Pakistani garb of baggy pants and long tunic, fled the scene in a white car. The hospital where Mr. Bhatti was pronounced dead said 20 bullets had been fired.

A pamphlet found at the site warned against changes in the blasphemy law and was signed by militants, police officials said. It specifically named Mr. Bhatti.

A spokesman for the Taliban, who is based in Punjab, later called Pakistani media and claimed responsibility for the assassination.

Mr. Bhatti, worried about the death threats he received after the killing of Mr. Taseer, had asked the Interior Ministry for a bulletproof car and a larger squad of security guards, standard measures for many government ministers, Mr. Gill said.

But the request was ignored, Mr. Gill said. There was no sign of a security detail as Mr. Bhatti left his house on Wednesday morning, witnesses said.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the assassination “an attack not only on one man but on the values of tolerance and respect for people of all faiths and backgrounds that had been championed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.”

Mrs. Clinton, who recently met with Mr. Bhatti during a visit he made to Washington, called him a “very impressive, courageous man” who knew the danger he faced.

Shortly before his death, Mr. Bhatti said he knew extremists were after him. “I am receiving threats on speaking against the blasphemy law, but my faith gives me strength and we will not allow the handful of extremists to fulfill their agenda,” he said.

The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, quickly issued a statement calling the murder of Mr. Bhatti a “terribly grave new act of violence” that “demonstrates that the pope’s insistent addresses regarding violence against Christians and religious freedom have been justified.”

Christians make up less than 5 percent of the 180 million people in Pakistan, and are clustered in some of the poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities in Punjab where militant extremism is sharply increasing.

A prominent liberal lawyer, Babar Sattar, said he worried the gunmen would get away “scot- free,” and criticized the government for its reaction to Mr. Taseer’s killing. “If the state had come down strongly and with an unequivocal message that this would not be tolerated after Salman Taseer’s murder perhaps these people would be stopped,” he said.

The government-employed bodyguard who killed Mr. Taseer was showered with petals at his court appearances by lawyers, who several years ago were considered to be the vanguard of a more open Pakistan.

By stifling discussion on the blasphemy law, the Pakistan Peoples Party was retreating from its original principles of a secular Pakistan, and giving free rein to the conservative Islam that has seeped into government circles and the military, Mr. Sattar said.

After the assassination of Mr. Taseer, and the outpouring of sympathy for his killer, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani pledged in Parliament that the government had no intention of changing the blasphemy laws.

A senior member of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Sherry Rehman, was told by Mr. Gilani last month to withdraw a bill she sponsored that called for reform of the law. In the charged atmosphere since Mr. Taseer’s murder, Ms. Rehman lives under the protection of armed guards at her home in Karachi, and spends much of her time fighting court cases filed against her by conservative religious leaders.

Mr. Bhatti, in contrast to the wealthy, outspoken and sociable Mr. Taseer, lived modestly, was single and “married to his work,” an associate said.

“Thoroughly Pakistani, a gentleman, a follower of Jinnah,” the founder of Pakistan, said Shaukat Javed, a former head of the police force in Punjab.

Chosen by the Pakistan Peoples Party in 2008 to fill one of five parliamentary seats allocated to members of minority communities, Mr. Bhatti became increasing isolated in the party as its leadership bent to the pressure of conservative religious groups in the last several months.

Even so Mr. Bhatti never gave up, Mr. Sattar said.

When a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was given a death sentence last year, Mr. Bhatti agreed with Mr. Taseer that she should be granted a pardon. He wrote a report for President Zardari outlining the facts of the Bibi case, emphasizing that the blasphemy law was a tool to persecute minorities.

He was then asked by Mr. Zardari to head a panel of scholars, including Muslims, to review the blasphemy laws, but the members of the panel were never named because of the religious fervor unleashed by Mr. Taseer’s murder, friends of Mr. Bhatti said.

Last Sunday, Mr. Bhatti was busy arranging a memorial service for Mr. Taseer in Lahore this weekend.

Now, his friends said, the service will very likely be held for the two men, one quiet, one brash, who fought for the cause of a more tolerant Pakistan and lost their lives in the quest.
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