ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Christians, government officials and secular groups have condemned the brutal assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the young Catholic minister in charge of minority affairs in Pakistan’s federal cabinet.

Bhatti, 42, was shot by unidentified gunmen who pumped bullets into his car from automatic weapons as he was being driven from his residence to his office in Islamabad this morning.

Bhatti, bleeding profusely, was rushed to a nearby hospital by his driver in the same car. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

He had been facing public death threats from Muslim fundamentalists in recent weeks.

“Bhatti’s assassination underlines the issue of protection of religious minorities, life and liberty,” Pakistani churches said in a statement after an emergency condolence meeting in Lahore, which was presided over by Archbishop Lawrence Saldana, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan.

“The government needs to go beyond the rhetoric of ‘minorities enjoying all the rights in the country’ and take practical steps to curb extremism in Pakistan,” the statement said.

“We pay our salute to the courage of Shahbaz, who knowingly put his life in danger by speaking up boldly against the blasphemy law,” Archbishop Saldana said after the ecumenical meeting.

An outspoken critic of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law, as the federal minister in charge of minority affairs, Bhatti had been trying to build public opinion against the abuse of the law that provides a mandatory death sentence for even unintentional blasphemy cases.

‘My Life is Under Threat’

As a mark of respect to the assassinated politician, Archbishop Saldana said that all Christian institutions across Pakistan will remain closed for three days “to mourn Bhatti, who sacrificed his life for the Christians.”

Cecil Choudhary, a retired army official and close associate of Bhatti for years in his political campaign for Christian and minority rights, told the Register from Islamabad that Bhatti “dedicated his life for the minorities from his school days.”

“In his college days, he launched the Christian Liberation Front to assert the political rights of the Christians. In June 2001, he started the All Pakistan Minority Alliance, for which I was the executive secretary,” Choudhary pointed out.

Bhatti joined the Pakistani People’s Party in 2002. When the party, under President Asif Ali Zardari, assumed power in early 2008, Bhatti was nominated to Pakistan’s National Assembly under the reserved quota for Christians and was soon the federal minister for minority affairs.

With Christians suffering assaults and trumped-up cases under the draconian blasphemy law, Bhatti’s ministry for minority affairs set up a 24-hour crisis hotline to report acts of violence against minorities in the Muslim-majority nation, where religious minorities account for less than 3% of Pakistan’s 175 million people.

However, Bhatti himself became a target of Islamic fundamentalists after he initiated, in November 2010, a clemency petition for Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five sentenced to death on a trumped-up blasphemy charge, along with the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer.

Taseer was assassinated on Jan. 4 this year by his own bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, who boasted that he killed the governor for daring to call the blasphemy legislation a “black law.”

“My life is also under threat. I am getting threat calls regularly,” Bhatti told this correspondent in a telephone interview Nov. 22 when contacted for confirmation of reports that Bibi was being released. The minister denied those reports.

Bhatti said, however, “We are making all the efforts to get her released and present a report after studying the case to the president.” He said he had met Bibi’s family members.

‘We’ve Lost a Bold Christian Leader’

Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, said today, “We have lost a bold Christian leader and champion of the minorities.”

Jacob said that Islamic groups organized massive demonstrations across Pakistan against amending the blasphemy law — in response to an increasing chorus of international demands to amend it.

“After Taseer, they started targeting Bhatti and even burnt his effigies during the protests,” Jacob pointed out. He said the funeral of Bhatti, who remained a bachelor due to his “dedicated life” as a Christian activist and politician, is likely to be held in his native Kushpur village after the arrival of his four brothers, who live in Canada.

Bhatti is also survived by his elderly mother and a sister. His father, Jacob Bhatti, died in January.

Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokesperson for President Zardari, told the media that the assassination points to a “concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive and humanist voice in Pakistan.”

“Shahbaz Bhatti’s ruthless and cold-blooded murder is a grave setback for the struggle for tolerance, pluralism and respect for human rights in Pakistan,” stated Citizens for Democracy, Pakistan’s largest network of secular and civil-rights groups.

Acknowledging that Bhatti was “under constant threats from religious extremists due to his efforts to stop the misuse of the blasphemy law,” the forum demanded in a statement that “action be taken [against] all those people … and organizations inciting violence and murder.”

The National Human Rights Commission of Pakistan expressed a “sense of outrage and grief” at Bhatti’s murder and condemned the assassination as “the work of militants out to eliminate anyone who raises his voice against persecution of the vulnerable people.”

Imran Khan, former captain of Pakistan’s World Cup 1992 winning cricket team, blamed the government for its failure “to provide adequate security” to Bhatti.

When gunmen pumped bullets into Bhatti’s car from different directions, there were no security personnel accompanying the minister.

Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.