LAHORE, Pakistan — Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, has joined the mourners paying tributes to Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province who was assassinated today for his opposition to the Islamic blasphemy law.
Taseer, 66, was shot by his security guard when he emerged from lunch at a restaurant in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.
After pumping nine bullets into the governor, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri lay down his gun, claiming that he carried it out to avenge his stand on the controversial blasphemy law.
“I killed the governor because he termed the blasphemy law as kala kanoon (black law),” Qadri told the police later.
“This is very shocking. We have lost a great friend and a bold crusader against the blasphemy law,” Archbishop Saldanha said from his office in Lahore.
The blasphemy law makes insulting the Quran an offense punishable by life imprisonment, while being found guilty of insulting the prophet Mohammed brings an automatic death sentence. The Catholic Commission has repeatedly said the controversial law is often misused against Christians and others to settle property and personal disputes.
Taseer had become the target of Islamic fundamentalists in recent weeks after he took a bold stand on the law. This happened after Asia Bibi, a 45-year old Christian mother of five, was sentenced to death by a trial court on a blasphemy charge Nov. 7.
Bibi had a quarrel with her Muslim neighbor on the flow of drain water from their houses at Itanwalli village in Punjab.
While the quarrel continued in the fruit field where they worked together, Muslim neighbors verbally abused the “untouchable” Christian woman for using the common glass provided to the workers to drink water.
Church activists point out that the blasphemy charge was brought against Bibi for standing up to the taunts.
Even as the international outcry led by Pope Benedict XVI for Bibi’s release gathered momentum, Taseer visited Bibi, who had been kept in isolation in jail since her June 2009 arrest. He wanted to verify her story and get her signature for a clemency petition he was to send to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
Following the news leak of this initiative, Islamic scholars issued an apostasy decree against the governor on Nov. 24, forcing Zardari to back down from the move to grant executive pardon and release Bibi.
Islamic parties and groups organized protests outside the Governor’s House in Lahore, warning of a fierce reaction if Bibi was released or if an attempt to amend the blasphemy law was initiated.
Archbishop Saldanha, who had known Taseer from their days together at St. Antony’s School in Lahore, recalled his last meeting with him. “The governor had invited me for a Christmas dinner at his residence on Dec. 23.
“When I thanked him for his support for Asia, the governor spoke out strongly against the blasphemy law. Unfortunately, the new year has begun here on a sad note with his assassination. It is a great loss for us,” Archbishop Saldanha said.
A businessman and a legislator, Taseer was appointed governor of Punjab in May 2008. The province is home to 56% of the population of Pakistan.
The archbishop, who heads the Catholic Church in Pakistan, where 97% of its 170 million people are Muslims, said the assassination will have “a negative impact” on civil and church activists campaigning against the blasphemy law.
“This will only add to the fear that is already there.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.