UPDATE 1-Christian Pakistani minister shot dead in Islamabad

Wed Mar 2, 2011 12:32pm IST

(Adds comment, background)

ISLAMABAD, March 2 (Reuters) - Pakistani Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, who had called for changes in the country's controversial blasphemy law, was killed in a gun attack in Islamabad on Wednesday, officials said.

Police said the shooting took place near an Islamabad market. Bhatti was the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet.

"The initial reports are that there were three men who attacked him. He was probably shot using a Kalashnikov, but we are trying to ascertain what exactly happened," said Islamabad police chief Wajid Durrani.

A hospital spokesman said Bhatti had several bullet wounds.

The anti-blasphemy law has been in the spotlight since last November, when a court sentenced a Christian mother of four to death.

On Jan. 4 the governor of the most populous province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who had strongly opposed the law and sought presidential pardon for the 45-year-old Christian farmhand, was gunned down by one of his bodyguards.

The anti-blasphemy law has its roots in 19th-century colonial legislation to protect places of worship, but it was during the military dictatorship of General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s that it acquired teeth as part of a drive to Islamise the state.

Liberal Pakistanis and rights groups believe the law to be dangerously discriminatory against the country's tiny minority groups.

Under the law, anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty, but activists say the vague terminology has led to its misuse.

Christians who make up about two percent of Pakistan's population have been especially concerned about the law saying it offers them no protection.

Convictions hinge on witness testimony and often these are linked to personal vendettas, critics say.

Blasphemy convictions are common, although the death sentence has never been carried out. Most convictions are thrown out on appeal, but angry mobs have killed many people accused of blasphemy. (Reporting by Zeeshan Haider and Chris Allbritton; Editing by Robert Birsel and John Chalmers) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here.

(If you have a query or comment about this story, send an e-mail to news.feedback.asia@thomsonreuters.com)