World News

Pakistan Interior Minister, Champion of Minorities, Is Shot

Posted May 6, 2018 7:20 p.m. EDT
Updated May 6, 2018 7:24 p.m. EDT

KARACHI, Pakistan — Pakistan’s interior minister narrowly escaped an apparent assassination attempt Sunday evening when a gunman slipped into a small crowd of supporters and colleagues surrounding the minister, firing a shot that pierced his right shoulder.

The attacker was quickly apprehended and the minister, Ahsan Iqbal, taken to a hospital; government officials said he was in stable condition. The shooting, which took place in Punjab province, left Pakistanis on edge as the country prepares to hold general elections as early as July.

Although a motive for the shooting has yet to be declared, Iqbal is a staunch supporter of Pakistan’s religious minorities, often considered heretics by the country’s radicalized offshoots of Sunni Islam. Iqbal met with religious minorities across Pakistan in recent weeks, encouraging them to go to the polls and promising to provide security to nervous constituents.

In the end, Iqbal’s own security detail couldn’t give him the protection he promised religious minorities, who are frequent victims of terrorist attacks as well as harassment and discrimination by authorities. This past week, the minister met with Hazaras, who practice Shiite Islam, listening to their complaints of widespread discrimination at the hands of the police forces that Iqbal leads.

Iqbal was shot as he left a meeting and was reportedly shaking hands with a small crowd before getting into his car to depart. The minister may have been meeting with a group of Christians in his constituency of Narowal district according to a Reuters report. Narowal is about 150 miles southeast of Islamabad, the capital.

The minister is one of the most senior officials in the government and a member of the ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. The chief minister of Punjab, Shehbaz Sharif, said on Twitter that he was “personally overseeing” the investigation into the assassination attempt.

Video released hours after the attack by Punjab’s provincial government showed Iqbal being lifted out of an ambulance on a stretcher, his right arm in a sling, his eyes alert.

Iqbal has often been a lone voice defending Pakistan’s minorities, shielding them from attacks from members of even his own party. When a senior official from the ruling party in an October speech denounced the Ahmadis — an Islamic sect — as a threat to the country who should be barred from the military, Iqbal called for an “inclusive Pakistan”:

“It is tragic to see hate speech against minorities in National Assembly,” Iqbal wrote on Twitter. “We believe in inclusive Pakistan. Pakistan respects all minorities.”

Iqbal never shied away from a photo opportunity with his Christian constituents, targets of communal violence and devastating attacks like the suicide bomb that ripped through a children’s park in Lahore on Easter Sunday in 2016, killing at least 69.

Iqbal, a prolific Twitter user, marked Christmas with his Christian constituents last year by posting a photo of him and a gaggle of young children in red, one boy wearing a Santa Claus hat and beard.

The photo elicited both praise and scorn, which Iqbal ignored, continuing to tweet in defense of the groups.