Shahbaz Bhatti will not be remembered as a quiet man. As Pakistan’s outspoken Minister for Minorities Affairs, the only Christian member of Parliament, and a tireless advocate for Pakistan’s imperiled Christian community, Bhatti was accustomed to standing out in a crowd.
Bhatti’s impassioned defense of Pakistan’s minority Christian community moved and motivated human rights advocates and government officials around the world. “He never achieved what he dedicated his life to – the eventual repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws,” said Stuart Windsor, National Director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, “But he tried, bravely and with indefatigable spirit, and his life was a blessing to many.”
'Ready to Die'
Millions around the world are mourning the death of the spirited Christian advocate, who perished under a hail of almost 30 bullets as he left his house in Islamabad yesterday.
President Obama commented on the assassination hours after it happened, remarking that he is “deeply saddened” by Bhatti’s death, and “condemn[s] in the strongest possible terms this horrific act of violence.”
For Bhatti, the threat of death was a daily reality. In an interview posted by Al Jazeera, conducted shortly before his death, Bhatti was asked about the death threats he has faced. His response is now viewed by many as prophetic: "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."
Benedict Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide knew Shahbaz personally. “He lived his faith fully, bringing comfort to the marginalized and oppressed minorities and providing them with a voice,” Rogers said. “He refused to compromise his belief in freedom and justice, he worked for peace, and now he has made the ultimate sacrifice.”
In Pursuit of Justice
Bhatti’s legacy lies in his ceaseless courage and immutable struggle against the onslaught of radical Islam in his country. He didn’t allow his role within Pakistan’s government affect his strong principles, his unyielding stand for religious freedom. Though his appointment as Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities Affairs raised his profile considerably, Bhatti embraced the risks and opportunities provided by the position. After his appointment, he assured human rights advocates and supporters that his vision was still clear. “This position cannot change my determination to pursue justice,” he told the audience at a London Conference sponsored by Christian Solidarity Worldwide in October of 2009, “because I live for religious freedom and I am ready to die for this cause.”
Nina Shea, Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, vividly recalls a conversation with Bhatti, during which he described the effect of death threats on his day-to-day life.
“He once told me that he had never married because he did not think it would be fair to a wife and children to subject them to this concern,” Shea writes in an article on National Review Online, “His work was his life: At the end of each day, he left his government Cabinet office and headed over to his office at the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, where he continued to help Pakistan’s persecuted minorities until late into the night.”
The Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Mervyn Thomas, is grieved by the statesman’s early death. “Shahbaz Bhatti has tragically become another victim of violent intolerance and lawlessness in Pakistan. His loss will be felt keenly by all those pursuing justice and the rule of law.”
Bhatti was just 42 years old.
The Blasphemy Law
In his position as Minister of Minority Affairs, Bhatti consistently sought improved treatment for Pakistan’s marginalized Christians. His varied efforts included improving job prospects for minorities, the recognition of Christian holidays, and the uniting of religious leaders in a stand against terrorist attacks. Ultimately, however, it was Bhatti’s outspoken stance against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that sealed his death.
“Shahbaz always said that the power of the blasphemy laws lay in the social attitudes which underpinned them. He made it his goal to overcome faith-based divisions, and had already built unprecedented bridges between religious leaders in Pakistan,” Thomas said.
But the progress that Bhatti had been making seemed to slow in recent months. Just two months ago Salman Taseer, the moderate Muslim governor of Punjab province, was shot to death by his own bodyguard after speaking out on behalf of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman imprisoned on charges of blasphemy. As the eyes of the world turned toward Pakistan, the blasphemy law that Bhatti had spent years combating became a source of heated national debate, a debate that cost Taseer his life.
Bhatti, though he couldn’t have known it at the moment, was next.
Leaflets left at the scene of his death, signed by “The Quaeda and the Taliban of Punjab,” indicate radical rage against Bhatti: “This is the punishment of this cursed man,” one note reads.
After Bhatti’s death, the plight of the imprisoned Asia Bibi is even more uncertain – though it hasn’t silenced Christians in the area. Courageous local believers in Pakistan’s Punjab province a recently attended a protest on her behalf.
Bhatti’s death is likely to cause increased fear for Pakistan’s already-embattled Christians. But it’s also possible that his defiant stance against radical Islam, and his ongoing fight to protect the rights of marginalized believers, will inspire awareness and action on behalf of the oppressed, in Pakistan and throughout the world.
A campaign to more specifically address the persecution faced by religious minorities in Pakistan and the surrounding region is underway. Congressman Frank Wolf has introduced legislation for the appointment of a special envoy for religious freedom in the Middle East and Asia. The initiative for the special envoy is one way to address the crucial issues faced by Christians throughout this region.
“I hope and pray that his death is not in vain,” Benedict Rogers said, “and that the authorities in Pakistan, and the international community, will wake up and act to end the abuse of the blasphemy laws that cause so much misery, and stop the growth of extremism."
For now, the memory of Shahbaz Bhatti, the outspoken advocate and tireless campaigner for religious freedom, is serving as an impetus for action for Mervyn Thomas and other advocates around the world. “His killing shows more than ever before the need for others to take up the mantle of his pioneering work,” Thomas said.
Kristin Butler has visited with Christian communities throughout the Middle East and Asia. She is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to religious freedom, human rights and philanthropy. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email [email protected].