Servant of God Shahbaz Bhatti Proclaimed Christ in a Muslim Nation — 10 Years Ago, He was Assassinated

Hope is a necessity, not a luxury.

Pakistani civil rights activists gather during a ceremony on the site of the attack on slain Pakistani minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti in Islamabad on March 3, 2011. Pakistan announced three days of national mourning and vowed "fool-proof" security after a Christian government minister who decried Islamic blasphemy laws was gunned down.
Pakistani civil rights activists gather during a ceremony on the site of the attack on slain Pakistani minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti in Islamabad on March 3, 2011. Pakistan announced three days of national mourning and vowed "fool-proof" security after a Christian government minister who decried Islamic blasphemy laws was gunned down. (photo: FAROOQ NAEEM / AFP via Getty Images)

What was it like growing up Muslim in the United States? The answer, in my case, is that it was a cakewalk. 

I’d met a fair number of people who’d converted to Islam, and not one of them suffered any legal ramifications whatsoever for having done so. I never had to worry about the prospects of a Christian neighbor arbitrarily accusing me of blasphemy, much less being thrown in jail on any such charge. I was never overcome by an instinctual urge to check whether any suspicious persons were lurking outside of the mosque. In fact, the Ann Arbor Police Department had been kind enough to send an officer to the local mosque to make sure no one attempted to harm the local Muslims during the Jummah (Friday) prayer service which fell on Sept. 14, 2001. 

There were some moments, here and there, in which I felt like I was very different. For instance, a couple of my fourth-grade classmates had once told me that I’ll be going to hell since I didn’t believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. But that was about as much “discrimination” as I’d ever faced — kid’s stuff. 

Having had it so easy, I can only imagine the experiences of so many Christians who do have to worry about things I never dealt with. The much kinder (as far from perfect as they may be) laws which we’re accustomed to in Christendom are unreciprocated throughout the Muslim World. The foundational faiths of these respective civilizations, worldviews which form the basis of our horizontal and vertical relations, have much to do with how our laws and customs have historically developed. Today, as a result, there’s no shortage of Muslims who’d much prefer to live in a Christian-majority country than any Muslim-majority one. 

Reality couldn’t care less about whether it is “politically correct.” 

Over the last two decades, we’ve become all too familiar with reports about the sufferings of Christians throughout the Muslim World, whether from violent intimidation or forced conversion (especially upon young women) perpetrated by mobs, or from laws designed to undermine (and ultimately annihilate) any religion aside from Islam. Martyrdom, though it is incredibly rare in our own country, is as common throughout the world today as it has ever been. 

Every practicing Catholic I’ve ever met can name at least one saint who makes them proud of their faith. As a Westerner, a beneficiary of Christendom that is, it’s incredibly easy for me to come across biographies of saints who’d lived within the context of the culture I’m most familiar with. But as a former Muslim, who has Google-searched something along the lines of “former Muslim Catholic saints” plenty of times before, I’ve only ever found scant results. 

There is a dearth of canonized saints who are indigenous (contextually, not necessarily geographically) to the Muslim World. Christianity is viewed widely among Muslims as a “foreign” or “European” religion. The patron saint of Pakistan even happens to be St. Francis Xavier.

Europe did indeed become the demographic center of Christianity for many centuries because, long ago, European armies managed to fend off the waves of invasion that had overwhelmed the Middle East and North Africa. And I find it ironic that a person from my mother’s native Pakistan who would readily dismiss Christianity as the religion of “imperialists” probably wouldn’t give a second thought to his belief that Allah only accepts his daily prayers if they’re recited in Arabic (I’ve yet to meet a Pakistani who fluently speaks Arabic.)

But are Christians living throughout the Muslim World only turn to saints from “elsewhere” for intercession? Are former Muslim converts, who often hide their faith to avoid ostracism — I’ve seen this even in the United States — to be left with any false belief that they’re alienated for having so few known friends in Heaven whose experiences resonate with their very own? And in this current era, when news reports routinely remind us of the battering which many of our brothers and sisters abroad have been taking, is it not the Church’s duty to offer assurance and hope by honoring their trials?

For the Christians touched by the Muslim World (whether cradle or convert) to have heroes whom they can call their own is an immediate need. 

In the Great Commission Our Lord also said to make disciples of “all nations” (Matthew 28:19), and that certainly doesn’t exclude 1.8 billion Muslims (there are projections that the gross sum of Muslims will eclipse that of Christians by this century’s end). If every knee shall bow to Christ, then, as is, there will be more conversions coming from Islam than any other religion. Considering the sheer scale of such an undertaking, isn’t it a decent idea to foster a culture for former Muslims in the now? How helpful could it be to the missionaries, those called by the Holy Spirit to share the Gospel with Muslims, to have more beatified and canonized persons to point out?

The recognition of saints touched by the Muslim world is also a long-term priority.

Of course, there’s more to the process of canonization than just having the Holy Father get up and say “hey, let’s call this person a saint!” The process is very reasonable, very wise, and also tends to be very lengthy. The recognition of a person’s holiness is most certainly not something to subject to some policy akin to affirmative action. But are there candidates who already fulfill the suitable requirements for this immediate need? 

There may very well be.

Servant of God Shahbaz Bhatti, from my mother’s native Pakistan, is one such candidate. He was born in 1968 to a devout Catholic family in Lahore, the city where he was raised. As an altar boy, he had traveled with priests who celebrated Mass in nearby villages, giving him the opportunity to witness firsthand how Christians consigned to second-class citizenship lived. Upon hearing a Good Friday sermon, at the age of 13, he’d found his calling as an activist for the dignity of religious minorities in Pakistan. This was during a time when Pakistan’s blasphemy laws (which were theoretically designed for the benefit of all recognized religions, but in practice benefits only one) were becoming ever stricter under the presidency of General Zia-ul Haq.

Bhatti went on to help found the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, an activist group that also participated in humanitarian work, and gained some international recognition for his campaigning. He also managed to gain brief placement on the government’s Exit Control List (meaning he was banned from leaving Pakistan) in 2003. Bhatti was a vigorous advocate for the rights of fellow Christians, as well as for Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis (an offshoot of Islam which most Muslims don’t consider Islamic), secularists and others. 

In 2008 Bhatti was elevated to the position of Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, a position which was likewise elevated to the Cabinet, making him the only Christian in Pakistan’s Cabinet.

The Gojra riots, acts of mob violence directed against Christian communities, occurred in 2009. Minister Bhatti spoke in support of the embattled Christians, thus becoming the recipient of death threats. “He had received death threats,” Father Emmanuel Parvez, a parish priest of the Faisalabad Diocese, stated during a commemorative event last year, “and to those who advised him to emigrate, he said, ‘I am a disciple of Christ, I will never abandon my country and my people.’”

In late 2010 Asia Bibi, an illiterate villager, and a Catholic mother, was convicted of blasphemy (after over a year of imprisonment without formal charges) and sentenced to hang. The “evidence” presented during her trial was largely just hearsay, which Bibi insisted had been used against her to settle a personal grudge. The remarks she’d allegedly made about Muhammad, during a heated argument with a neighbor, would be considered very mild by any reasonable person. She was the first woman to receive the death sentence for blasphemy in Pakistan, that her case quickly gained international notoriety. Bhatti, who’d spent over two decades raising awareness of the blasphemy laws which were so easily abused, was among the leaders who’d lent his voice in support of Bibi.

On Jan. 4, 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, a Catholic-educated Muslim, was assassinated by a member of his own security detail (whom many Pakistanis consider a national hero for having done so) for his public opposition to Asia Bibi’s conviction. Bhatti, having understood what his own prospects were, recorded a video intended for release in the event of his own assassination. “I believe in Jesus Christ,” he said, “who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of (the) cross, and am following of his cross, and I’m ready to die for a cause.”

On March 2, 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was visiting his mother’s house, crawled into his car and departed for his office in Islamabad for the last time. Gunmen nearby were lying in ambush. They spotted Bhatti’s car and sprayed it with bullets. Bhatti was shot multiple times, rushed to the hospital after, and pronounced dead upon arrival. He was 42 years old. 

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, a terrorist group, claimed responsibility for the assassination. The assassins themselves have yet to be apprehended. Asia Bibi was finally acquitted in 2018, sparking widespread protests. She has been granted asylum in Canada since.

It was reported shortly after the assassination that when Dr. Paul Bhatti, who’d been living and practicing in Italy, cleaned out his late brother’s spartan apartment, the only three items he found on the small bedside table were a Bible, a rosary and a picture of Our Lady.

The late Bishop Anthony Lobo, of the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, swiftly became an advocate for the Holy See to formally declare Shahbaz Bhatti a lay-Catholic martyr, insisting that Bhatti had lived as a celibate (needless to say, political figures face similar temptations everywhere). The Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi formally opened the cause for Shahbaz Bhatti’s beatification in March 2016.

The requirement of a miracle for beatification can be waived so long as a person’s martyrdom is formally declared by the Church. Yet we still call Shahbaz Bhatti “Servant of God,” rather than “Blessed,” despite a clear-cut case for martyrdom. 

There’s been, in recent years, some speculation that political considerations have delayed the Cause of Servant of God Shahbaz Bhatti. Bhatti was a statesman after all, and incidentally he was the formal member of a political party (the Pakistan People’s Party, in his case), which has rival parties. The intense rivalries between Pakistan’s political parties can make our Republican and Democrat squabbles look like child’s play, that it’s standard for a former prime minister or president of Pakistan to face exile upon being ousted from office. 

Blasphemy laws also remain widely popular in much of Pakistan (95-98% Muslim), and an excuse can be all that it takes for Christians to be subjected to mob violence.

It’s perfectly understandable if the Church in Pakistan, having such a delicate task, would be reluctant to rush any act which could agitate either those holding office, or the mobs with a track record of harming Christians. 

At the same time, “which party will win in Pakistan’s next election cycle?” is a question that probably didn’t occur to very many Christians who’d been displaced (or worse) by the Islamic State. “Who are my friends in Heaven who’ve been through this?” is a question which probably occurred quite frequently. How long must any Christian who finds him or herself in a similar such predicament in the near future have to wait for a definitive answer? 

Much suffering is being dealt to Christians living in the Muslim world today because so many Muslims have been persuaded by the delusion that the Gospel of Christ will disappear from their lands if Christians are persecuted or killed off, as if Truth could somehow cease to be after being shot or blown up. Nearly 1,400 years of history, in which the number of Christians drastically dwindled throughout the Middle East and North Africa, can easily be cited to support such a delusion. Is our current age one in which the Church is called to play it safe, or to be defiant? 

In the long run, what would be more deterring to those who seek to harm Christians than to positively know that inflicting injury will only backfire by strengthening the tradition of those whom they hate? What greater assurance could there be for those marked to suffer for their faith, or perhaps even to die, than positively knowing that the Church will not hesitate to see to it that the names of such sufferers shall be on the tongues of the Faithful throughout the world, until the end of time? 

Hope is a necessity, not a luxury.

I have such fond memories of my childhood visits to Pakistan. I hope that, soon enough, our brothers and sisters there will feel their own chests fill with pride for having a recognized saint whom they can call their very own. 

“Are you a Christian?” some of their neighbors will ask them, with the intention to follow that up with the urging to join the “one true faith.”

“Yes, I am!” they’ll be able to answer. “Just like Shahbaz Bhatti!”

Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s slain minister, was aware of the threats that he faced in Pakistan. This is footage of an interview in which he talks about how he would carry on fighting to end the suffering of his community. Bhatti's close colleague released the video saying that Bhatti had requested him to do so in the eventuality of his assassination because “it is with the Muslim world I want to share the message of love. That is the only message that can bring the Muslim world out of the circle of hate and killings.”