Minorities minister meets Clinton

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets Shahbaz Bhatti in a show of support for religious freedom.

Afp February 04, 2011

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Pakistan's minister for minority affairs in a show of support for religious freedom as tensions mount in the country, he said Friday.

Minorities Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who has faced a wave of threats, said he spoke with Clinton on Thursday and explained his initiative to set up local committees around Pakistan to promote inter-faith harmony.

"She was very supportive of religious freedom," Bhatti told AFP.

"She said religious freedom was one of the important areas on which US foreign policy is based and they will continue to pursue this issue in their dialogues, not only with Pakistan but around the globe," he said.

Bhatti has campaigned to reform Pakistan's blasphemy law, which critics say has been abused to persecute religious minorities. He has sought clemency for a Christian mother of five sentenced to death under the law.

The most prominent supporter of reforming the law -- Punjab's Governor Salman Taseer -- was shot dead by his own bodyguard last month. In scenes that raised concern overseas, thousands have rallied in support of the assassin.

At a recent protest in Lahore, an AFP reporter saw activists carrying effigies of Bhatti and Pope Benedict XVI.

Bhatti, a Roman Catholic given a full-fledged cabinet position under President Asif Ali Zardari, said he has been receiving death threats "day and night" and that his family was also at risk.

"I am ready to lay down my life for the principles I believe in. Terrorists and threats cannot hinder my cause to stand for justice and equality and religious freedom," he said.

Bhatti is working on a project to form local committees that would promote inter-faith harmony and sort out disputes.

"This is the way to win the hearts and minds of the people," he said.

President Barack Obama's administration has made the campaign against extremism in Pakistan a top priority. In 2009, the United States devoted 7.5 billion dollars to build school, infrastructure and democratic institutions.


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