Christians are a micro-minority in Muslim Pakistan. But the first anniversary of Shahbaz Bhatti’s death has evoked unprecedented interest in the martyr.
Bhatti, a Catholic who served as federal minister for religious minorities, was assassinated on March 2, 2011, for opposing the country’s draconian blasphemy law. Apart from candlelight vigils by secular action groups and memorial services in churches across Pakistan, members in the Pakistani government also have become admirers of Bhatti, who was ambushed and sprayed with bullets in his car in Islamabad.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari hailed Bhatti’s contribution and legacy at a March 6 memorial conference organized in Islamabad by the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), founded by Bhatti himself.
Bhatti “sacrificed his life in the service of religious minorities,” declared Prime Minister Gilani at the conference, which was attended by more than 2,000 Christians from across Pakistan, including the apostolic nuncio to Pakistan, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, Church officials and leaders of political parties.
Gilani pointed out that Bhatti was instrumental in a policy to reserve four seats in the national Senate and 5% of government jobs for religious minorities. There were already seats reserved for minorities in the National Assembly, when Bhatti himself joined that body in 2008.
As federal minister for minority affairs, Bhatti initiated the move to declare Aug. 11 as Minority Day in Pakistan, Prime Minister Gilani further noted.
More than 96% of Pakistan’s 178 million people are Muslims. While Christians and Hindus account for over 1.5% each, Ahmadis, Sikhs and tribals account for the remaining 1%.
President Zardari did not attend the conference, but in a message read at the meeting, he hailed Bhatti as one who stood “in the forefront of the struggle for protecting the minorities from exploitation and discrimination.”
“In the pursuit of this struggle, Shahbaz Bhatti refused to be deterred, despite threats to his life,” Zardari pointed out.
“To pay homage to Shahbaz Bhatti, let us resolve to work for promoting interfaith harmony as our best hope for fighting militancy and extremism and for establishing in Pakistan a just and pluralistic society,” urged the Pakistani president.
An outspoken champion of minority rights, 42-year-old Bhatti became a target for Islamic fundamentalists after he initiated in late 2010 a clemency petition for Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who had been sentenced to death on a trumped-up blasphemy charge. As of this writing, she remains in prison.
Bhatti, who had launched the Christian Liberation Front in his student days, later founded the All Pakistan Minority Alliance and joined the Pakistan People’s Party in 2002.
When the Pakistan People’s Party assumed power in early 2008 under President Zardari, Bhatti was nominated to Pakistan’s National Assembly under the reserved quota for Christians and was made the federal minister for minority affairs.
At the memorial conference, verses from the Bible and the Quran were read and oil lamps were lighted before a portrait of Bhatti, reported Muhammad Arshad, spokesman for Paul Bhatti, the brother of the slain minister and adviser to the prime minister on national harmony.
“Every church in Pakistan has remembered him with special prayers. How can they forget him?” said Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, director of the Church’s National Commission for Justice and Peace.
At Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore, Father Mani pointed out, Bishop Alexander John Mallick of the (Anglican) Church of Pakistan joined Bishop Sebastian Shaw, the Catholic bishop of Lahore, in an ecumenical prayer service on March 3, attended by hundreds of Christians to remember Bhatti’s “sacrifice.”
Michele Chaudhry, a close associate of Bhatti and spokeswoman for APMA, said secular groups like Citizens for Democracy organized candlelight vigils and street dramas in the big cities to commemorate Bhatti.
“No minority leader in Pakistan’s history has evoked so much support,” Chaudhry said March 9. It was a “fitting tribute” that two Hindus, a Christian and a Sikh were elected to the Senate for the first time on the anniversary of Bhatti’s assassination, she said. Bhatti had been campaigning for such a thing to happen even before he became a minister, she said.
In Islamabad, Chaudhry added, a memorial procession was conducted from the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance office on March 2 to the place where Bhatti fell to the assassins’ bullets while on his way to the office after meeting his elderly mother. Participants voiced their demands for justice in the case, as Bhatti’s killers have yet to be arrested.
Archbishop Emeritus Lawrence Saldana of Lahore, in a tribute on the occasion, hailed Bhatti for his “natural charisma,” in contrast to “corrupt politicians,” and his life and his work based “on the example of Christ.”
“At an early age, in his early 20s, Shahbaz made the decision to dedicate his life for the uplift of his oppressed community,” said Archbishop Saldana, who knew Bhatti as a young student in Lahore. “He wanted to free them from their slavery. This conviction and passion animated his whole life. That is why he never married — because he wanted to be free to pursue his goals.”
Meanwhile, the anniversary observation is being marked outside Pakistan as well. Christian groups are preparing a memorial concert at Trafalgar Square in London on March 10 in Bhatti’s honor.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, in a statement March 2, endorsed the growing clamor for canonization of the Catholic leader.
“It would be wonderful to think that … Shahbaz Bhatti could become a patron for justice and peace in Pakistan or, indeed, Asia,” said Cardinal O’Brien, emphasizing that Bhatti took up the cause of religious freedom, speaking out against persecution and in so doing knowingly put his life in danger.
“Everyone wants him to be declared as a saint,” said Father Mani, when asked for reaction to the growing demand for Bhatti’s sainthood.
Father Mani pointed out that within weeks after his assassination the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference had written a letter to Pope Benedict XVI with a request for canonizing Bhatti. The March 31, 2011, letter was to communicate the resolution of the bishops’ conference at its March 24 meeting “to promote the cause” of Bhatti “as a martyr of the Catholic faith.”
“Mr. Bhatti … was well known for his struggle for the rights of the oppressed religious minorities of Pakistan. He was a courageous leader who was ready to sacrifice his life for others. … Mr. Bhatti was a loyal Catholic and a committed follower of Jesus Christ and his cross,” wrote Archbishop Saldana, conference president.
Quoting the words of Bhatti in one of his interviews, the letter said: “I know Jesus Christ, who sacrificed his life for others. I understand well the meaning of the cross. I am ready to give up my life for my people.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.