Modern Day Martyr

Modern Day Martyr

 

Shahbaz Bhatti

            Shahbaz Bhatti was born to Roman Catholic parents in Khushpur, Faisalabad, Pakistan. Touched by the story of Christ's sacrifice for his people, Bhatti embraced his religion..In his teens, he experienced the spiritual awakening to which he attributed his life's work, saying he had decided to give his life to serve others as he believed Christ had done for him.

            As a young man, he organized meetings for the purpose of studying the Word of God before dedicating his life to the defense of minorities. Bhatti helped to found the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in 1985 and had been elected its chairman. He met with President Pervez Musharraf as part of a group of minority rights advocates. He also served as head of Pakistan's Christian Liberation Front (CLF), which he formed in 1998. Bhatti joined the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 2002.

            Pakistan's population, estimated to be 185 million, is around 95 percent Muslim, and 5 percent follow other religions. Of these, Hindus and Christians each make up 1.5 to 2 percent, and the remaining 1 percent include Ahmadi Muslims, Baha'is, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and others. The CLF initiative was a brave decision given the deteriorating treatment of non-Muslims under the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88). The group experienced violent opposition from the start.

            Undeterred  by death threats and state intimidation that came later, Bhatti undertook everything from prison visits and aid distribution to political advocacy and legal support. In 1992, the CLF launched the first national campaign against the blasphemy laws. For this campaign, Bhatti first joined forces with the veteran activist, educationalist and war hero, Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry, who was to become his lifelong mentor. He was at his best working on the frontlines of activism. When the Christian villagers of Charsadda called him in fear of imminent attack from local extremists, he traveled to the northwest to be with them. When eight were killed and more than 100 houses destroyed in the Punjab city of Gojra in 2009, Bhatti (by then a government minister), refused to leave the police station until the crimes were registered

            Bhatti was elected to the National Assembly in 2008 and assumed the role of Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, now a Cabinet-level position for the first time. He was the only Christian Minister. While privately lamenting the distance his job placed between him and those he represented, Bhatti capitalized on his ministerial position. His achievements include a 5 percent minorities quota in government jobs, the first minority seats in the Senate and a 24-hour minorities helpline. He gained the respect of international leaders, as seen in the global reaction to his death.

            At the time, he said that he accepted the post for the sake of the "oppressed, down-trodden and marginalized" of Pakistan, and that he dedicated his life to "struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom, and to uplift and empower the religious minorities' communities." He added that he wanted to send "a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair,” and also stated his commitment to reforming the country's blasphemy laws  During his time as federal minister, he took steps in support of religious minorities. These included launching a national campaign to promote interfaith harmony, proposing the introduction of legislation to ban hate speech and literature, proposing the introduction of comparative religion as curriculum, and proposing quotas for religious minorities in government posts.

            Ever the proponent of Jinnah's founding vision, Bhatti pioneered interfaith initiatives. He spoke at large mosques at the invitation of senior imams. Eventually, in July 2010, he secured a groundbreaking joint statement from religious leaders to denounce terrorism. He further launched a network of “district interfaith harmony committees” to encourage dialogue and unite communities through common concerns. Bhatti had big plans and saw Pakistan leading the way for other countries. In his own words, he wanted to “make this world beautiful by delivering a message of peace, togetherness, unity and tolerance.”

            Bhatti had been the recipient of death threats since 2009, when he spoke in support of Pakistani Christians attacked in the 2009 Gojra riots in Punjab Province. These threats increased following his support for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy. The United States had tried to obtain increased security for him and get him an armored car but was unsuccessful. Bhatti himself foretold his death and recorded a video, which was to be released in case of his death, where he said "I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us, and I am ready to die for a cause. I'm living for my community... and I will die to defend their rights."

            The Pakistani Minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, died at the age of 42, shot by a gunman outside his mother's Islamabad home when his vehicle was sprayed with bullets. At the time of the attack he was alone, without any security. His driver reports having stopped the car and ducked when he saw armed men approaching rather than attempting to evade the threat. Bhatti died defending the cause to which he had dedicated his life. He was martyred on the streets of Pakistan.

            He was assassinated for his unrelenting opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy laws and the injustices and intolerance they encouraged. In his official capacity, he represented the interests of Pakistan's religious minorities. However, Bhatti also stood for those subscribing to the vision of Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, characterized by pluralism, freedom of religion and the rule of law. On the day following Bhatti's assassination, hundreds of Christian demonstrators reportedly took to the streets across Punjab, with protesters burning tires and demanding justice.

            Shahbaz Bhatti willingly risked his life by standing in the path of tyranny and injustice.  He took the 20 or more bullets intended to silence all Christians and bring about their acceptance and appeasement of injustice. May he not have died in vain.

Jim Fritz

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