A movement is growing to have Shahbaz Bhatti, the Catholic politician gunned down in Islamabad March 3, proclaimed a martyr and a saint.
Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan, Punjab, has publicly advocated that Bhatti be eventually recognized a martyr after the minister for minorities — the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet — was killed for speaking out against the country’s blasphemy law. The proposal was to be discussed during the bishops’ March 20-25 general assembly in Multan.
On March 5, Fides news agency reported Bishop Francis as saying that Bhatti was a man “who gave his life for his crystalline faith in Jesus Christ” and that it was up to Pakistan’s bishops “to tell [Bhatti’s] story and experience to the Church in Rome, to call for official recognition of his martyrdom.”
In addition, a petition has been set up on the Internet (shabaz-bhatti-martyr.org) by Federation Pro Europa Christiana to “plead for the canonization of Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani martyr.” An accompanying letter is addressed to Bishop Francis, which says that Bhatti “deserves the glory of the altars for his enduring disposition to bear witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine even unto death and for the many acts of fortitude that led to his murder.”
“This is clearly proven by his writings and spoken testimonies circulating in the Internet, as well as by the accounts of his assassination appeared in the world press,” the petition continues. “In canonizing Shahbaz Bhatti, the Church would be giving a model of heroism and great loyalty to the Catholic Church under conditions of persecution and political turmoil.”
To be proclaimed a martyr, five years need to pass before the cause can be opened, and no exceptions may be granted, according to the Vatican. During those five years, the local bishop would have to verify that the candidate showed a “reputation for martyrdom” and “intercessory power”; in other words, “favors, graces and miracles” need to have been granted through his intercession. “It would be no different for him than any other servant of God,” said an official.
If the local bishop verifies that Shahbaz Bhatti died for the faith and truly offered his life in a sacrifice of love for Christ and the Church, the cause would be passed on to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints who would further determine whether he can be officially proclaimed a martyr.
The next step would be beatification. Unlike beatification causes not involving martyrdom, a martyr may be declared “Blessed” by virtue of the martyrdom itself, and no miracle is needed. However, a miracle would need to have been performed through his intercession in order for him to be canonized.
Shahbaz Bhatti made no secret of the risks to his life and his willingness to die in the name of Christ.
“I want to live for Christ, and I want to die for him,” he is quoted as saying, adding: “Because of this desire, I will consider myself even to be more fortunate if Jesus Christ will accept the sacrifice of my life.”
In a television interview given four months before his murder, the slain minister said: “I am living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights. These threats and warnings cannot change my opinion and principles.”
He said banned militant organizations such as the Taliban and pro-Al-Qaeda groups “want to impose their radical philosophy on Pakistan.” Authorities believe Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a radical Muslim group, was responsible for the murder.
Pope Benedict XVI expressed his “deep sorrow” at the news of the atrocity and called Bhatti’s death a “moving sacrifice” during his Angelus address March 6. The Pope said he hoped his death would “awaken in consciences the courage and commitment to protect the religious freedom of all men and, in doing so, promote their equal dignity.”
At a March 6 memorial for Bhatti in Rome, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, recalled speaking with the late minister last November at Lahore airport. Bhatti told the cardinal he knew he would “die assassinated,” but that he would lay down his life “for Christ and for interreligious dialogue.”
“He already knew; he had already offered his life,” the cardinal said with emotion. Quoting from his spiritual testament, the cardinal relayed Bhatti’s words: “I am no longer afraid. I dedicate my life to Jesus. I do not want positions of power; I just want a place at Jesus’ feet.”
Shahbaz Bhatti, Cardinal Tauran added, was a shining example of someone who accompanied his words with actions. “We should thank God for this authentic martyr,” he said in a homily at a memorial Mass for Bhatti, according to Asia News. “He chose God as his Savior for his life, the Church as his mother, and human beings as his brothers and sisters.”
Since Bhatti’s death, Pakistanis have been calling for greater protection for religious minorities. The civil society network “Citizens for Democracy,” a large number of Pakistani civil associations including Muslim groups and the country’s bishops, has launched a petition calling for the rights of religious minorities to be respected in Pakistan. Fides reported March 14 that in a letter to the country’s political leaders the network stressed the urgent need to respect the rule of law and promote interreligious harmony within society. In two days, the petition had already gathered 15,000 signatures.
Fides also reported March 9 that Paul Bhatti, the oldest brother of Shabhaz, may succeed his brother as minister for minorities. A surgeon who has lived in Italy for six years, Shahbaz’s oldest brother was recently elected director of the “All Pakistan Minorities Alliance,” a network founded by Shahbaz in 2002 to defend religious minorities.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.