But the chances for reform of the Pakistani blasphemy laws are now looking slim
The night before he was killed, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani Minister for minorities telephoned the BBC’s Orla Guerin.
This is what he said:
“They say there’s a terrorist plot to assassinate me. They’ve told me to be careful, but didn’t tell me anything else. I haven’t been given any extra security. It’s just the same as it has been since I became a minister.”
Though his voice sounded weary, the minister’s commitment was unwavering. “I have struggled for a long time for justice and equality,” he said.
“If I change my stance today, who will speak out? I am mindful that I can be assassinated any time, but I want to live in history as a courageous man.”
Orla Guerin believes that Shahbaz Bhatti knew his days were numbered. “After we ended our conversation”, she said, “I could not escape the feeling that the minister had called to say goodbye”.
There are questions to be asked about all this. After all, Pakistan will soon be receiving more development aid from this country than any other country: and questions are more and more being asked about our relations with dodgy governments. Pakistan is supposed to be an ally. But is there not something dodgy in the extreme about a government which knows that one of its ministers is in great danger from terrorists and does nothing to protect him? Why was Shahbaz Bhatti refused extra security when he had asked for it? Why was there no security guard in the car with him? Why was he refused a bullet-proof car?
I do not know the answer to these questions. The Pakistani government is clearly itself in an unstable condition. There is a climate of fear in what is now an increasingly unhappy country. And there are things to be said in the Pakistani government’s defence: it may be true that it gave this courageous man inadequate protection, but at least it appointed him to his position as a cabinet minister for minorities in the first place. Will it now make his legacy the reform of the blasphemy laws, increasingly being used as a means of persecuting Christians? Commentators seem to think that his assassination, and that of the Governor of Punjab (also an opponent of the blasphemy laws) make reform less, rather than more likely. If so, the terrorists have won: a profoundly depressing outcome.
Like many courageous Christians in Pakistan, Shahbaz Bhatti was a Catholic (most press reports simply describe him as a Christian). It must surely be said that he died for his faith, and that though his death is an event by which we are rightly horrified, it is also one by which we should be inspired. He died for opposing the persecution of all minorities, most of all for defending Asia Bibi, a Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy, as I recounted some time ago in this column, on the basis of false accusations. He was a truly brave man and a hero of the faith.
Pakistan’s religious minorities are now fearful for the future. Shahbaz Bhatti’s elder brother, Peter, said afterwards that his brother “was the last voice of the minorities of Pakistan. Religious extremism has crossed all limits… We… are desperate and depressed.”
But he also said that his brother’s sacrifice would motivate Pakistani minorities to come out in the open for their rights.
“A thousand Shahbaz Bhattis will now come forward and not stop till these dark forces are defeated,” he said. We must, of course, hope and pray that his words prove to be prophetic: but the omens do not look good.