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Monday, November 3, 2008

Pakistan’s Shahbaz Bhatti sworn in as Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs

By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (ANS) -- Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, the Chief of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) and Christian parliamentarian, took the oath as a Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs on Monday, November 3.

Shahbaz Bhatti

Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti is the first parliamentarian who made history by assuming the office of Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs as his predecessors from the minorities’ communities were only offered the portfolio of State Minister for Minorities affairs. The Minister of State works under the Federal Minister.

Asif Ali Zardari, President of Pakistan, swore in the new ministers, including Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, at a special ceremony in Islamabad.

People from across Pakistan congratulated Mr. Shahbaz by phone after he was named for the office of Federal Minister for Minorities’ Affairs on Sunday night.

APMA workers from across Pakistan distributed sweets (candies) and danced to the beat of drums in several parts of the country to express their joy over his assumption of the portfolio of Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs.

A leading organization of all religious minorities and oppressed communities of Pakistan, the APMA has been struggling to promote national unity, interfaith harmony, social justice, human equality and for uplift and empowerment of religious minorities communities of the country.

The APMA has a strong organizational network throughout the country among minorities and has Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, and others in its fold.

In his message after the swearing in ceremony, he said: “I decided to become Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs to advocate the case of the oppressed and the marginalized communities of Pakistan. I have devoted my life to struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom, and to uplift and empower the religious minorities’ communities of Pakistan.”

He said he accepted the position and portfolio of the Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs to “serve the suffering humanity and minorities” and “to spread a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair.”

Mr. Bhatti said, “Jesus is the nucleus of my life and I want to be His true follower through my actions by sharing the love of God with poor, oppressed, victimized, needy and suffering people of Pakistan.”

He went on to say that the portfolio of Federal Minister of Minorities Affairs cannot become an obstacle in his commitment to “raise the voice of the oppressed.”

Reiterating his inflexible stance on the repeal of all discriminatory laws against Pakistani minorities he said he would continue to struggle for abolition of all “inhumane and discriminatory laws.”

Driven by his passion to change the plight of Pakistani Christians, Shahbaz Bhatti has effectively raised the voice of Pakistani minorities from the platform of a Christian organization, he founded in 1985. Within a few years it emerged as a representative organization of Pakistani Christians primarily because of principled stance that he (Shahbaz) took on the repeal of Pakistan blasphemy laws, which were implemented in the country in 1986.

Shahbaz Bhatti has been calling for repeal of the laws seen as draconian, unjust, and discriminatory by Pakistani minorities and human rights organizations. The APMA and other minorities’ rights organizations see the blasphemy laws as a potential weapon of lashing, harming, subjugating, terrorizing, pressuring and even taking the lives of the blasphemy accused due to the abuse of the laws.

Lowest of the low, the Christians of Pakistan are among those hit hardest by the laws. Apart from his categorical stance on Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, he has been struggling for treatment of minorities on equal footing, religious freedom, social and economic justice for minorities and the repeal of all discriminatory laws that have been posing problems for Pakistani Christians since their implementation.

“I will propose legislative reforms for the promotion and protection of minorities’ rights. I will speed up efforts to promote unity and understanding to tackle the issues of intolerance, hatred, prejudice and violence,” said Mr. Bhatti after the swearing in ceremony.

The APMA Chief said he planned to launch a campaign for promotion of interfaith harmony and reconciliation. “Each person should respect the religious beliefs of other person and nobody should be discriminated against,” said Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti.

He told ANS that he would be available 24 hours for the “oppressed, down-trodden and marginalized people. I will reach out to people in need throughout the country,” he pledged.

He said he had a passion to serve the persecuted Church in Pakistan. I will consider myself fortunate if I die struggling for my Christian brothers and sisters, Mr. Bhatti told ANS.

He thanked Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani for giving recognition to minorities. Induction of a member from minorities’ community in a policy making institution will give them “a sense of equality,” said Shahbaz implying to his becoming a Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs.

He expressed his optimism that incumbent government would address long-standing issues of minorities’ communities.

Christian Raising

Shahbaz has been a regular churchgoer since his childhood. In an exclusive ANS interview, Shahbaz Bhatti told ANS that he was deeply inspired by his pastor one day when he was speaking on the theme of crucifixion. He said the part of the sermon that described how Jesus laid down his life in order to liberate His people had touched him. “I had taken decision to follow in the footsteps of Christ at that particular moment,” said Shahbaz.

He said he organized various Bible study camps at different places with a view to encourage Christian youth to learn or have a fresh insight into the word of God. “I would go with my priest to different areas. I cherished his company because that would afford me an opportunity to learn more about Jesus and what he had come to do on earth,” said Shahbaz Bhatti as he recalled his younger days.

Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti said he was moved to see poverty-stricken Christian youth who were not able to study due to daunting odds stacked against them. He said he started giving tuition to them so that they could continue their education. He said he decided to help his Pakistani Christian brethren after becoming inspired by Jesus’ life.

“I have supported several pastors, church leaders. I want Christians of all denominations to converge on a single platform. We should give witness of Christ in this Islamic country. I am trying to build His Kingdom in Pakistan,” said the APMA chief.

“I preach Bible through my actions. I will consider myself fortunate if I die serving the suffering Church and witnessing Christ,” he added.

Awards

His popularity at home and abroad has continued to soar over the last two decades. In recognition of his struggle to see Pakistani minorities at par with the Pakistani Muslims, a Religious Liberty Award was conferred upon him in Finland in 2003 in the presence of hundreds of church leaders and representatives of human rights organizations.

In recognition of his services for promoting peace in the country, a “Peace Award” was conferred upon him in 1998 by an organization in the United States. He received a “Human Rights Award” for his services in the human rights arena in Canada in 1999. Several Pakistani organizations have conferred upon awards on him in recognition of his struggle for minorities’ rights in Pakistan.

Role in Parliament

Unlike radical-minded people, the APMA chief has always urged people to continue fighting for their rights without resorting to violence. During his maiden address to the Pakistan parliament on March 29, 2008, after being elected as a member of parliament in the wake of the 2008 parliamentary elections, Shahbaz raised a number of issues ranging from treatment of minorities on the basis of equality to repeal of discriminatory laws to celebration of all religious festivals in the country at a national level as well as a declaration of public holidays on each of these festivals.

From day one of his election as a parliamentarian, he has been contemplating drafts of the bills he plans to move in the parliament. He tabled a bill in the National Assembly Secretariat 30 days after the formation of the coalition information. The bill called for the doubling of minorities’ seats in the national and provincial assemblies and a proposal that some 9 reserved seats be allocated for Pakistani minorities in Senate. The leadership of Pakistan Peoples party assured the APMA chief that the PPP wants to increase minorities’ seats and it also gave its nod on allocation of at least five seats for minorities in Senate. The Prime Minister approved places of worship for minorities’ people in prisons when Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti took up the issue with him.

Mr. Bhatti took up the matter with concerned authorities when some seventeen Christians were abducted by armed militants in northwest Pakistan in June 2008. The abductees were released by the militants within 24 hours.

True Patriot

The APMA Chief said he loved Pakistan very much. I am very much inspired by the vision of the father of the Nation Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, whose achievement as the founder of Pakistan, dominates everything else he did in his long and crowded public life spanning some 42 years.

He added that Pakistani Christians have always been loyal to Pakistan. “They have shed their blood for creation of Pakistan. The country rose on the map of the world due to decisive vote of prominent Christian leaders of that time,” he said.

Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti thanked Christians across the world for their prayers and urged them to pray for him so that he continues serving the suffering humanity in Pakistan with inflexible commitment, unwavering determination and unflinching faith of changing the destiny of minorities’ communities in Pakistan.

“Your prayers and moral support in the past always boosted my morale. They (your prayers) brought out the best in me. The APMA needs your continued prayers to turn hatred into love, intolerance into tolerance and violence into peace,” he concluded.


Dan Wooding, 67, is an award winning British journalist now living in Southern California with his wife Norma of 45 years. He is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS); and US Bureau Chief for the Missionaries News Service (www.missionariesnews.tv) and Safe Worlds IPTV’s Christian News Services. He was, for ten years, a commentator, on the UPI Radio Network in Washington, DC. Wooding He is also the author of some 42 books, the latest of which is his autobiography, "From Tabloid to Truth", which is published by Theatron Books. To order a copy, go to www.fromtabloidtotruth.com. E-mail: danjuma1@aol.com.

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