A hero of the faith: Remembering Shahbaz Bhatti

On 2 March 2011 Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities Affairs, was assassinated as he left his mother’s house in Islamabad. He had spent his life dedicated to standing up and speaking out for marginalised and vulnerable minorities in Pakistan, and his legacy is still felt today.

On the 11th anniversary of his assassination, Mr Bhatti’s nephew David writes about his uncle’s life and legacy, and the situation for minorities in Pakistan today:

On a recent trip to Rome, Italy, I was able to tour the Basilica di San Bartolomeo all’Isola. For the last twenty years, this ancient church has been dedicated to the memory of Christian martyrs of the 20th and 21st centuries. Pilgrims and tourists from around the world go there to learn about and gain inspiration from individuals who – from Africa to South America, through Communism and Nazism – made the ultimate display of self-sacrificial love in the face of tyranny and evil.

On my visit, I was able to once again see, after eleven years, my uncle Shahbaz Bhatti’s bible which is displayed alongside the relics of the New Martyrs of Asia, Oceania, and the Middle East. This was the very bible that I would see on his nightstand on my visits to Pakistan – the book in which he would be immersed every morning, through which he gained his strength, and by which he lived his life. Today, it serves as an enduring symbol of his legacy: of his unwavering dedication to serving others and of his faithful and fearless pursuit for justice.

Shahbaz Bhatti’s bible on display at the Basilica di San Bartolomeo all’Isola

Many people remember my uncle as the principled Pakistani politician who brazenly challenged his country’s draconian, discriminatory, and demoralizing laws. His journey, however, began long before he gained prominence as the first and only Christian in Pakistan’s history to be included in that country’s executive government.

By the time he entered into the political arena, my uncle had a lifetime of experience walking alongside Pakistan’s most impoverished and victimized citizens. From raising funds to support the education of poor Christian students while still in college to leading hunger strikes and national demonstrations against oppressive government legislation, he had wholly committed his life to seeing a free and equal Pakistan.

In our family, his appointment as Minister for Minorities Affairs in 2008 was met with a sense of reserved joy. There was the joy that came with knowing that our son, brother, uncle was honoured with a historic and unprecedented opportunity to change the course of Pakistan’s future. There was also reservation, however, because we were well aware of the dangers he would face by accepting this high-profile public position.

Undeterred and unshaken, my uncle took up his post with vigour and refused to address challenges from a safe distance. Instead, when the Gojra riots led to the deaths of several Christian villagers and destruction of their homes, he immediately travelled to the village and refused to leave until police investigations were underway. When Hindus faced similar threats to their community at Katasraj, he provided them with extra security forces and hosted a dinner for them at their Temple. When Sikh families were affected by militant activities in Peshawar, he visited them in their homes and provided them the aid they needed to rebuild their livelihoods.

It was this on-the-ground experience and practical action that made him an effective proponent for change in a country deeply divided on religious grounds. It was also these very actions that led to him becoming a primary target of militant Islamists.

When threats to his life became increasingly prevalent, my uncle publicly stated: “Forces of darkness, forces of violence, and forces of extremism cannot harass me, cannot threaten me, cannot divert my attention.” And when asked by reporters if warnings of his imminent assassination would silence him, he had a very simple answer: “Not at all.”

At the root of religious-based persecution in Pakistan are the country’s blasphemy laws. These laws, which were amended into their current form by a military regime in the 1980s, prohibit citizens from insulting Islam – a crime punishable by death. Aside from stifling freedom of speech and conscience, the vague definition of what does or does not constitute “blasphemy” allows these laws to be weaponized by anyone looking to settle personal disputes. Unsurprisingly, religious minorities – who represent roughly two percent of the country’s population – are disproportionally affected by false allegations.

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Pakistan was the world’s worst offender of blasphemy prosecutions and societal violence between 2014-2018. Over the last thirty years, more than eighty people have been killed extrajudicially by street mobs for alleged crimes of blasphemy. Just last month, a Muslim man was stoned to death by a mob of 300 villagers for allegedly burning religious texts. This heinous act came only two months after a Buddhist Sri Lankan national was killed in the streets of Sialkot by a violent mob for allegedly desecrating religious posters.

Blasphemy laws, coupled with apostasy laws and growing cases of forced conversion, abductions, and forced marriages of minors, are tearing at the fabric of Pakistani society. They go beyond undermining basic civil rights and, in most cases, enable criminal acts to be met with impunity.

Without active leadership on the ground, such cases have been and will continue to grow, as affirmed by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief in his 2019 annual report. If left unchecked, militant rule will continue to fester in the region and will inevitably extend beyond its borders, threatening to further destabilize our world.  

Patriotic Pakistanis are tired of living in a system that enables vigilante justice to take precedence over the rule of law. The Pakistani diaspora around the world is tired of witnessing barbaric behavior taking over their ancestral home. And the loyal, devoted, nation-loving religious minorities of Pakistan are tired of living with a noose around their necks.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has publicly condemned recent attacks on minority communities but has done little beyond his words to create change. He now faces the threat of losing billions of Euros in trade preferences under the EU’s GSP+ program for allowing flagrant violations of human rights to continue under his watch.

Protecting the freedom of religion or belief around the world must be a central pillar of every leading democracy’s foreign policy agenda. Nations, particularly in the West, that hold a stake in preserving socio-economic peace and stability in South Asia must stop turning a blind eye to the deteriorating situation in Pakistan.

Practical solutions begin with holding the Pakistani government to account for its dismal record on human rights, both in foreign trade agreements and aid contracts. Disparities in the national education system need to be addressed immediately and should include implementing pluralistic curriculums in schools and robust training for teachers at local levels. Police forces also need fresh reforms and updated methods of training to ensure the efficient and effective control of mob violence. Judges and lawyers involved in deciding controversial cases need greater protection and security against the threat of militant groups.

By addressing these and other fundamental flaws, much can be done to curb the scourge of religious intolerance in Pakistan. But it will take a united, international effort to see progress.

My uncle Shahbaz believed in and fought for a pluralistic Pakistan according to the vision of its founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. For thirty years, his voice thundered around the world on behalf of the voiceless masses. On the 11th anniversary of his assassination, his voice rings out once again. Just as visitors to San Bartolomeo’s find renewed inspiration upon witnessing the symbol of his life, let us too be encouraged today to recommit ourselves to defending religious freedom for all.

By David Bhatti.