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Assassination of Pakistan's Minister of Minority Affairs a Great Blow to Religious Freedom

Senate Must Act Immediately on Confirmation of President's Nominee as International Religious Freedom Ambassador

Contact: Eric Harris
202.387.2800 | news@rac.org

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 2, 2011 -- In response to the assassination of Pakistan's Federal Minister of Minority Affairs Shabbaz Bhatti, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism issued the following statement:

A hero was assassinated today. The word "hero" is so sorely overused and diminished. But today a hero for religious freedom was slain, one of the most principled and courageous people I have known. His name was Shabbaz Bhatti and he was a Catholic who served as the Federal Minister of Minority Affairs in Pakistan. He had dedicated his life to inter-faith cooperation and religious freedom. I served as the First Chair of the U.S. Commission on Interreligious Freedom, and through our successors at this Commission, and through the efforts of one of America's most tireless conservative champions of religious freedom and human rights, Michael Horowitz, I had come to know Bhatti and cherished our growing friendship.

Yesterday he was shot eight times in his car. The Taliban has claimed credit.

What was his offense? His opposition to Pakistan's deeply troubling blasphemy law, which bans any derogatory remarks about, or insults in any way, to the prophet Muhammad, the Koran or Islam. The law has been exploited to persecute minorities and to settle scores against adversaries. It is a clear violation of international human rights standards. Bhatti was courageous in calling for reforms of the law, or, if that were not possible, at least reform of the law as implemented.

This assassination is a major setback to religious freedom and tolerance and to interfaith relations in Pakistan. In emboldening other religious extremists to use violence to impose their religious beliefs on others, it sends troubling signals across the globe.

There are some key steps the U.S. can take. Most urgently, the U.S. Senate, after dragging its feet for too long, can move immediately to act on President Obama's qualified nominee for the position of U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook. It can use its leverage to ask for more protections of religious minorities in Pakistan. The Administration can also ensure that her position will continue to be a principle advisor to the President and Secretary of State as called for in the International Religious Freedom Act and not be downgraded in its authority as reports have indicated it might be. We commend Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for meeting with Minister Bhatti during his visit last month. This manifested a priority embrace of international religious freedom that needs to be continued.

That after two years of this Administration we still do not have an Ambassador for International Religious Freedom is an international embarrassment, signaling to the world a downgrading of our concerns on these issues at a time when in America's foreign policy, an effective strategy for religious freedom and tolerance is needed more than ever.

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1,800 Reform rabbis. Visit www.rac.org for more.



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