He was a ‘true patriot’, brutally gunned down by assassins for his stand against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws
By Shahid Khan, Special to ASSIST News Service
PAKISTAN (ANS – March 4, 2017) — The late Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities, and the only Christian in Pakistan’s Cabinet, was gunned down in Pakistan on March 2, 2011, at the age of 42 after he dared to criticize the widespread misuse of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
The brutal killing took place, as he left his Islamabad home, and two self-described Taliban gunmen in broad daylight sprayed some 25 bullets into the Christian minister’s car, striking him at least eight times. They then scattered pamphlets that described him as a “Christian infidel”. The leaflets were signed “Taliban al-Qaida Punjab”.
According to The Guardian, Bhatti’s 22-year-old niece Mariam was first on the scene. “I rushed out to find his body covered with blood. I said “uncle, uncle” and tried to take his pulse. But he was already dead,” she said at Bhatti’s house, extending a bloodstained palm. The sound of wailing women rose from the next room.
Bhatti’s shocking assassination was the second killing of a politician in Islamabad over blasphemy in as many months, following the assassination of the Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer outside a cafe a few miles away on January 4, 2011. He, too, had spoken out against the country blasphemy laws and like Mr. Bhatti, had stood up for Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian mother-of-five who has been behind bars since 2009 after having been accused of having committed blasphemy, an offence that, if convicted, carries the death penalty,(She is currently appealing her death sentence from her death-row cell in a Pakistani prison).
Mr. Bhatti had predicted his own death. In a farewell statement recorded four months before his death, which he asked to be broadcast in the event of his death, he spoke of threats from the Taliban and al-Qaida.
But he vowed not to stop speaking for marginalized Christians and other minorities. “I will die to defend their rights,” he said on the tape released to the BBC and al-Jazeera. “These threats and these warnings cannot change my opinions and principles.”
Although his life was tragically cut short six years ago, he lives on in the hearts of millions of down-trodden Pakistani minorities.
Mr. Bhatti’s first experience of discrimination was at college when a lecturer denied him a front row seat in a classroom, instead telling him to go to the back of the room. From then on he vowed to fight for equal rights for the Christians in Pakistan. He began studying the patterns of discrimination against Pakistani Christians.
In 1985, Mr. Bhatti founded the “Christian Liberation Front” and invited Christians from across Pakistan to join his newly-formed platform to help him advance the struggle for equal rights for the Christians. Disadvantaged Pakistani Christian men, women and youth passionately responded to Mr. Bhatti’s call, and by the 1990s, this courageous man had won the hearts of millions of Pakistani Christians because of his bold stance against the misuse of the blasphemy laws.
In 2002, Mr. Bhatti founded the All Pakistani Minorities Alliance (APMA) and waged an admirable struggle for the rights of all religious minorities in Pakistan right up to the tragic day of his assassination.
In 2008, he was given the portfolio of the Federal Minister for Minorities and Mr. Bhatti continued to speak out against the misuse of Pakistani blasphemy laws and called for clemency for Asia Bibi, Mr. Bhatti’s strong advocacy for Ms. Bibi drew death threats from militant organizations in the country, yet undeterred, he continued to speak out against the misuse of the contentious laws. He remained true to his people.
During his time as the Federal Minister, Mr. Bhatti proposed that minorities be given a five-percent quota in all government jobs, and this was subsequently accepted by the then Pakistan People’s Party government. Mr. Bhatti’s APMA also gave shelter to the family members of many minority people who had been accused of having committed blasphemy.
In 2005, when a devastating earthquake hit several parts of Pakistan, Mr. Bhatti himself oversaw the relief and rescue activities in the areas that were hit by the earthquake. Shelters and food kitchens were set up in the affected areas as part of the relief efforts.
In 2006 he continued his amazing work when he set up a school in the village, Boli, four kilometers (about two-and-a-half miles) from Balakot, a town in Mansehra district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.
In 2010, when massive floods hit Pakistan, Mr. Bhatti instructed APMA workers across Pakistan to participate in rescue and relief efforts. Food hampers were given to people affected by the flood across Pakistan regardless of their religion.
On August 11, 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan while addressing the First Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, said: “You are free, you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or cast or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State … Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State”.
Addressing many public rallies in Pakistan, Mr. Bhatti would often refer to the aforementioned section of Jinnah’s speech. He was profoundly concerned over increasing polarization in Pakistani society on religious, political, linguistic, provincial and ethnic lines.
In his discourses, he would express his unease at the failure of successive Pakistani rulers to credit Pakistani minorities for their vote in favour of accession to Pakistan. Likewise, he would underline the need for the recognition of the services of Pakistani Christians in the fields of education and health. A number of Pakistani elites, including the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, the late Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, attended a Christian missionary school.
In recognition of his efforts aimed at promoting and safeguarding the rights of minorities in Pakistan, he was given various international human rights awards such as the “International Awaz” in 1999, the “International Liberty Award” in 2004, and the “USCIRF International Freedom of Religion Award” in 2009.
A few months ago, I went to Thailand to interview Pakistani Christian asylum-seekers there, and met Mr. Bhatti’s personal driver, Gulsher, who told me he had “no choice” but to flee Pakistan following the assassination of Mr. Bhatti.
According to Gulsher, the police allegedly tortured him for 14 days. “They would beat me with a club until I bled or became unconscious”, he said.
“I was content with my life in Pakistan before this tragedy happened”, he added, referring to the brutal assassination of Mr. Bhatti.
He described Mr. Bhatti as a “courageous” leader who would not be deterred from voicing the concerns of the Pakistani minorities despite having received death threats.
During my time in Pakistan I had the honor of meeting Mr. Bhatti in person and, like millions of others, was deeply impressed by his unwavering commitment to the cause of Pakistani minorities.
As I was being driven back to my hotel upon the conclusion of this interview, I reflected on Mr. Bhatti’s bold struggle for minorities; his audacity of hope; his vision and the confidence he inspired in me and millions of people from the minorities in Pakistan that we should always stand up to those who try to deny us our fundamental human rights which are enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan.
Mr. Bhatti, you were a true patriot who died for what you believed.
Note: Additional work on this story by ANS Founder, Dan Wooding.
Photo captions: Shahbaz Bhatti speaking at a human rights conference. 2) Blood-stained car in which Mr. Bhatti was murdered. 3) Shahbaz Bhatti meeting with Ashiq Masih, husband of Asia Bibi, along with his daughters Sidra, second right, and Esham, left. (AFP). 4) Christian protesters voice their views on Mr. Bhatti’s murder. (EPA). 5) Shahid Khan.
About the writer: Shahid Khan is based in the United Kingdom. His interests include human rights, religious freedom and foreign policy. He can be followed via twitter @shahidshabaz.
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