NEW YORK — Paul Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister of minority affairs, called religious liberty a Christian value that can enhance life in the country and impart stability to society at large.
“With religious freedom, societies are more likely to flourish, because people can express their deepest belief and highest ideas, so societies are more stable,” he said in a Jan. 19 interview with Catholic News Agency.
“It’s the wrong concept that religious freedom leads to instability, but, actually, it leads to more public order and more economic empowerment, so this is the Christian teaching.”
Christianity can also offer to Pakistani culture its emphasis on compassion and the works of mercy, Bhatti observed.
“John Paul II said that Christian teaching ... should be some kind of assistance to the human being. We don’t assist only [one] who is Christian; we have to assist a human being who is suffering, who needs our help, who should be honored and respected for his dignity, for this is the teaching of Christianity.”
“So, if we follow the teaching of our Gospels, that will bring ... the real message of freedom,” he noted.
Bhatti made his remarks at the New York Encounter, a three-day cultural festival in the city — sponsored by the Catholic ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation — that explored the theme of “Experiencing Freedom.”
He discussed “Freedom in Politics,” reflecting on his brother Shahbaz, who was killed in 2011 for his support of Pakistani Christians and his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws, which are chiefly used to persecute non-Muslims.
Brothers in Faith
After Shahbaz’ death, Paul was appointed to his brother’s post as minister of national harmony and minority affairs, again the only Christian in the Pakistani government. He said it was a “challenge” to take on this position.
“I found myself in a situation, though it was very difficult to accept it, because, before, I was living a very routine, normal life,” he said. As minister of minority affairs, Bhatti, at times, must travel with a security entourage and suffers threats to his life.
“But, next to that, if you feel you can make some difference and change this culture or at least give your small contribution to this culture, which can grow and can extend on a wider basis in society, I think I must dedicate my life for this.”
He offered a hopeful vision for Pakistan, saying, “This is the encouragement I get from this kind of situation, and I feel there is space for change, there is a possibility that this culture can become a tolerant culture; we can bring harmony in this society. But we have to start from somewhere.”
On the current movement to have his brother Shahbaz canonized, Bhatti said he has “no doubt he is a martyr, because his whole life was dedicated to the teaching of the Bible, and he was a strong believer of Our Lord Jesus Christ. ... We are getting help from him.”
“He never negotiated his faith, and he expressed his faith openly everywhere, even when he knew he could be killed. So, in that context, I think he has all the possibilities” of being a saint, Bhatti said.
The Pakistani minister recounted going into his brother’s room after his martyrdom and described it as “very small,” with “a corner where he used to pray every morning, and there was only a simple carpet, a rosary, a statue and a Bible.”
“He believed so strongly that he laid down his life for his Christian principles and for Jesus Christ.”
Experience of Freedom
Bhatti said his experience of freedom has been shaped by having lived in both Pakistan and in the Western world. He is by training a surgeon and studied in both Belgium and Italy.
“You appreciate the value of freedom when you see a country like Pakistan, where freedom of expression and faith is violated, and people are living under oppression; so then you start realizing the value of freedom, what freedom means.”
He said it is important to promote freedom in Pakistan because without it people can get involved in such problems as terrorism and sectarian violence.
Bhatti pointed to illiteracy and poverty, as well as “instability in government and politics,” as factors that contribute to a lack of freedom in such places as Pakistan.
“What I can do now is only the analysis, and the next step will be how to get that real kind of freedom which a human being must have in a society where it is violated.”
In Pakistan, these violations come often from blasphemy laws, which strictly prohibit defamation of Muhammad and the Quran. The laws are often used to settle personal scores or to persecute minorities.
Bhatti was able to assist a Christian girl who, in August, was accused of blasphemy. Rimsha Masih is a 14-year-old girl with Down syndrome who was arrested Aug. 16 after she was accused of burning pages of the Quran.
It later emerged that an imam from her neighborhood planted pages of the Quran among burnt pages in Masih’s bag.
Bhatti said that he was informed of the case soon after by local Christian families, because, after such an accusation is made, mob violence will often flare up against minorities in the neighborhood.
“They had a clash between Muslims and Christians. ... They were wanting to get them out from that community, and they found this solution, blaming somebody, accusing them of blasphemy; this is a tool often used in Pakistan; some people use it for personal benefit, as it happened in this case.”
Bhatti said that as soon as he was told of the situation he phoned “all those involved in security” to ensure protection of Masih and local Christians, but “they were not sure if they were able to control the mob.”
“I went to the mosques; I talked to the imams,” he said, asking them not to encourage violence against the local Christians.
“They understood, and ... it was quite amazing, the first time that they promised they would not do this, to support me.”
The Islamabad High Court dismissed the charges against Masih Nov. 20, and, on Jan. 15, the Pakistani Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by her accuser.
Many hope that Masih’s suit might lead to a relaxation of the blasphemy laws. Reflected Bhatti, “I was lucky and am honored to be part of this case.”