As Pakistani Christians around the world prepare to mark the second anniversary of Shahbaz Bhatti’s death, his killers remain at large. The Pakistani government has never caught those responsible for the death of Benazir Bhutto so it should come as little surprise to us that the murderers of a Christian cabinet minister are also roaming free.
To Bhatti, his position in government was more than a job or a title. His passion and devotion for the cause of Pakistan’s minorities went above the call of duty, and he was a strong voice for the rights of Christians and the misuse of the blasphemy law. Although he knew full well the risks of his job and his public stance against the extremists, he never wavered or compromised his message.
To ordinary Christians facing the threat of death on a daily basis in villages, towns and cities across Pakistan, he was an immense encouragement to live out their faith. Although his life and his work were cut short, the memory of his bravery continues to touch the hearts of Pakistani Christians, who feel forever in his debt.
Interestingly, he came from the same village as Bishop John Joseph, whose dedication to justice and equality would see him also give up his own life to protest against the misuse of blasphemy laws against Christians. Bishop Joseph took his own life in protest against the misuse of blasphemy laws against Christians, and inspired many, including Bhatti, to make courageous stands against the prevailing extremism.
Despite these brave sacrifices, Christians continue to suffer and lose their lives because the government has done little to change the root of it all: the blasphemy laws. The blasphemy laws continue to be misused by extremists for their own interests and even by the common people who consider them an easy way to settle their personal disputes, something of which Shahbaz was a strong critic.
One high-profile victim is Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, who is on death row and has already spent years in prison waiting for her appeal to be decided. Another is Younis Masih, who has spent more than eight years in prison, sentenced to death for blasphemy and enduring a lengthy appeal process that shows no sign of ending soon. He has been separated from his family all these years and recently suffered a heart attack behind bars.
It is the very real, human suffering that Bhatti was so keenly aware of and sensitive to. In Pakistan he brought about the establishment of a new committee to look again at the blasphemy law, but his efforts were thwarted by strong opposition from politicians and political Islamic groups, and instead of showing courage the then prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilliani gave in to the extremist pressure and declared that the government had no intention of changing the blasphemy laws. In addition to keeping pressure up on the Pakistani government at home, Bhatti repeatedly took the issue to the international community, raising awareness with foreign governments and human rights groups.
His murder, which came just weeks after that of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, was a tragedy for human rights and a terrible reflection of the state of Pakistan and the extent to which radicalism and extremism had taken hold of the country. Since his death, the efforts of other moderates in parliament to bring in sensible and humane reform have been crushed. Sherry Rehman, the Pakistani ambassador to the United States who submitted a bill to the National Assembly for the amendment in the blasphemy laws, is herself being investigated for blasphemy. She sympathised with Bhatti’s position and was virtually forced out the country. Christians remain indebted to her because she has to pay the cost of her views with lingering threats to her life.
Blasphemy laws have adversely affected Pakistani society and inc-idents like mob justice and vigilante killings are becoming a daily routine now. This is the frightful reality for those who fall short of the lofty standards of righteousness imposed by extremists. Pol-ice may wear uniforms and courts may pass down their judgments, but let no one be in any doubt that, when it comes to blasphemy, it is others who wield the power in this virtually lawless land. During his lifetime Bhatti did a great deal to bring this reality and the plight of Christians to the international community, as well as to the Church. His strong relations with the Catholic Church encouraged the Pope’s public statements condemning the persecution of Pakistani Christians and the misuse of theblasphemy laws.
Bhatti had an opportunity to meet the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who also shared great concern for Pakistani Christians and even set up a Pakistan focus group after his visit to Pakistan in 2005. The archbishop was joined in paying tribute to Bhatti in London by Under Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Alistair Burt, Pakistani High Commissioner Wajid Shams ul Hassan and other dignitaries.
During his short time as a government minister, Bhatti met many senior minsters and representatives in western governments with whom he always raised the issue of the misuse of blasphemy laws and persecution. A picture of Bhatti hangs in the US State Department, a testimony to their high regard for him.
Pakistani Christians continue to feel his loss as he was one of their greatest and most outspoken advocates. Without him, they
rely on western Church leaders to continue to raise their plight with their respective governments and put the necessary pressure on Pakistan to respect human rights and religious freedom for all citizens.
The Christian girl Rimsha Masih was lucky because her blasphemy case made international headlines. Blasphemy accusations are so common in Pakistan that it takes an extraordinary case like hers to attract the attention of the international community. Such attention has the potential to soften the tone at home and make the country’s leaders and courts more willing to drop the charges. But the majority of blasphemy victims do not have that international attention and where this is the case the authorities are all too happy to leave them languishing for years in prison or to suffer mob justice.
It is people like Shahbaz Bhatti who inspire Pakistan’s Christians to continue living out their faith despite the hardships and persecution. They are praying every day that the government will remember the sacrifice and blood shed by Christians, who are their very own citizens, and bring an end to the misuse of the blasphemy laws. As we remember Bhatti’s death two years on, we give thanks for someone who was such a tireless advocate for minorities and who continues to inspire us today.
Nasir Saeed is the director of CLAAS (Claas.org.uk), which works for Christians persecuted in Pakistan