WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Wednesday condemned the assassination of the only Christian member of Pakistan's government, calling the slaying of Shabaz Bhatti a "horrific act of violence."
Republicans and Democrats in Congress echoed Obama's outrage, hours after Bhatti was gunned down outside his mother's home. His slaying came just weeks after the killing of liberal politician Salman Taseer. The two men had pushed to change laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.
"He is literally a modern-day martyr," said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., at a Capitol Hill news conference.
Bhatti, a campaigner for human rights causes, had been aware of threats to his life. Obama said Bhatti "fought for and sacrificed his life for the universal values that Pakistanis, Americans and people around the world hold dear" — including rights to free speech and religious freedom.
Assailants from al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban Movement in Punjab province claimed responsibility, calling Bhatti an "infidel Christian."
Obama said that whoever committed the crime should be brought to justice, and people who share Bhatti's vision of tolerance and religious freedom should live free of fear.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who recently met Bhatti, called him "a patriot and a man of courage and conviction." She said in a statement that 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."
More than half a dozen lawmakers, many of whom knew Bhatti, called on the Pakistan government to change the laws. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who said he prayed with Bhatti, said the events need to be a "game-changing moment."
"No matter what your religion, his murder is an affront to God," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
They showed a videotaped message from Bhatti in which he said he received death threats and was "ready to die" for the country's often persecuted Christian and other non-Muslim minorities.
Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., said Bhatti's death reflects the growing climate of intolerance in Pakistan and urged all Pakistanis to stand united against violence and intolerance.