March 2, 2012 marks one year since the tragic death of Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of parliament in Pakistan, and an ardent advocate for persecuted religious minorities in the predominately Muslim nation. In his capacity as Minorities Minister in Pakistan, Bhatti was a passionate voice for the oppressed, in spite of numerous threats to his life.
Scotland's top Catholic prelate, Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, has spoken out in memory of Shahbaz Bhatti, saying that he “was a truly remarkable hero whose legacy must live on in our own lives.”
Forty-two-year-old Shahbaz Bhatti was killed in Islamabad on March 2 of last year. Bhatti was leaving his mother's home when his car was sprayed with bullets fired by Islamist militants. His gruesome death shocked the world, but Bhatti himself had predicted his own death at the hands of those who hated what he stood for: a Pakistan that offered religious freedom for all its citizens.
For Bhatti, the threat of death seemed to be a daily reality. In an interview posted by Al Jazeera, conducted only days before his death, Bhatti was asked about the threats he faced. He responded: "I am ready to die for a cause. I am living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights. These threats and these warnings cannot change my opinions and principles. I would prefer to die for my principles and for the justice of my community rather than to compromise on these threats.”
Shahbaz Bhatti's death followed the assassination of Salman Taseer, the governmor of Punjab province. Both men had been vocal in their support of the imprisoned Asia Bibi, a Christian woman facing death for the crime of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed. It was speaking out against Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law that led to both men's deaths in Pakistan's increasingly fundamentalist society.
“Minister Bhatti fought for and sacrificed his life for the universal values that Pakistanis, Americans and people around the world hold dear -- the right to speak one's mind, to practice one's religion as one chooses, and to be free from discrimination based on one's background or beliefs,” President Obama said upon hearing of Bhatti's assassination. “He most courageously challenged the blasphemy laws of Pakistan under which individuals have been prosecuted for speaking their minds or practicing their own faiths.”
President Obama condemned the assassination in strong terms, stating that “Those who committed this crime should be brought to justice, and those who share Mr. Bhatti's vision of tolerance and religious freedom must be able to live free from fear.” He said, “Minister Bhatti will be missed by all who knew him, and the United States will continue to stand with those who are dedicated to his vision of tolerance and dignity for all human beings.”
One year after Bhatti's assassination, Asia Bibi, the Christian woman whom he so vocally defended, remains in prison awaiting her own execution. She has recently released a book from prison, working with a French journalist to tell her story. Her words revolve around the anguish of awaiting an unjust death while separated from her family. Bibi movingly addresses her husband and children in her memoirs. “Even since I have returned to my cell and have known that I am going to die, all my thoughts have turned to you, my beloved Ashiq [Asia's husband], and to you, my beloved children,” she writes. “Nothing pains me more than to leave you alone in total anguish.”
A year after his death, Bhatti's murder case has descended into a confusing mess of conflicting reports and lying witnesses. Although flyers from the Punjabi Taliban and al Qaeda were left at the scene of Bhatti's murder, some local police officers still claim that the assassination was motivated by a monetary dispute. The two individuals accused in the case have not been identified by eyewitnesses, but by a local man who admitted to lying in an attempt to gain money from Bhatti's family.
As for Pakistan's minority Christians, the risks of life in an increasingly volatile society can seem, at times, unbearable. Babu Ashraf is the deacon of a small Catholic church near Islamabad. “The fear is there,” he says of living as a minority believer in his country. “We cannot openly talk to people about religious matters because it becomes easy for them to create as issue, and then they threaten us with repercussions,” he explains. “It’s a kind of psychological torture.”
Bhatti's life will be commemorated with services throughout the world this week, including a peace rally in London where Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien's statement will be read. “The call of religious freedom was one [Bhatti] made his own and anyone who cares about the dignity of the human person will listen to his words,” O'Brien says. “His witness is a remarkable one that has lessons for us all.”
Stuart Windsor, National Director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said that Bhatti never achieved what he dedicated his life to – the repeal of Pakistan's blasphemy laws. “But he tried, bravely and with indefatigable spirit, and his life was a blessing to many.”
Ben Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide knew Shahbaz personally, and said that Bhatti's life was one of faith and action. “He lived his faith fully, bringing comfort to the marginalized and oppressed minorities and providing them with a voice,” Rogers recalled. “He refused to compromise his belief in freedom and justice, he worked for peace, and he made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Kristin Wright is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to human rights, international travel, social justice, women's issues, religious freedom, and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication date: March 1, 2012