It was a strange situation last Sunday (March 6, 2011) in Karachi, the largest city, main seaport and the also the financial center of Pakistan, where it appears that not one major church there mentioned the name of Shahbaz Bhatti, the late Federal Minister for Minorities’ affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was assassinated on March 2, 2011, during their services.
For instance, during the Sunday morning service at Holy Trinity Cathedral, the seat of the Church of Pakistan in the Karachi Diocese,, the bishop, the Rt. Rev. Sadiq Daniel, asked the congregation to pray for Pakistan, its political leadership and the country’s future.
But oddly enough, there was no mention of Mr. Bhatti, a committed Christian, and his brutal death.
Helen Turner, who attended the service at the cathedral, said, “I thought they would at least have mentioned him, but no they did not. After all, Mr. Bhatti was a huge supporter of the Christians of Pakistan and also the other minorities.”
On checking around other main churches in Karachi, it appears that no special prayers were offered for Bhatti this past Sunday, including St Patrick’s Cathedral and St Andrew’s Church.
“They must have mentioned him in Thursday’s service,” said Eugene Romeo, one of the Holy Trinity Cathedral Church attendants, who works for the Toyota company as their regional director. “On the first Sunday of every month, there is a usually a special prayer said for the country, for the Christian community, for politicians, for the deprived — regardless of their faith — and for the sick.”
While media reports said that up to 30,000 Christians and Muslim mourners and protestors in the Punjab came out in huge numbers to attend Shahbaz Bhatti’s funeral on Friday, March 4, 2011, in his native village of Khushpur, yet Karachi has not seen in such numbers in support of this courageous martyr.
Even the banners condemning Bhatti’s assassination posted outside all major churches in Karachi, were not placed there by Christians, but by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the largest ethnic political party and the largest liberal political party in Pakistan.
When asked why he was not mentioned in Sunday’s English service, the Rev Shahid Sabir, pastor at St. Patrick Cathedral, said, “We will offer a prayer in the Urdu service. Special prayers were scheduled for March 8.”
I have also since discovered that both St Patrick’s Cathedral and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Karachi will hold memorial prayers for Bhatti this week.
On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, urged that the “moving sacrifice” of Bhatti, should inspire “courage and commitment to strive for religious freedom for all men.”
Security is undoubtedly a concern for Christians in Karachi, as churches have little to no presence of law-enforcement personnel outside their places of worship.
On Friday evening, a sole police officer sat near the gate of the Holy Trinity Cathedral. The officer said he had only been deployed there because “there was a wedding inside.”
Irshad Ali Raza Saher, who is Saddar’s Superintendent of Police, said, “We generally have a security presence at churches, especially during the time of worship.”
However, this did not appear to be case last Sunday.
Bishop Ijaz Inayat from St. Andrew`s Church in Karachi, said, “We cannot raise an army to protect all the churches. Why should we ask for security? It is the state’s duty to provide that security. The government has failed in its duty and it should quit.”
Pakistani Christians and their places of worship have been attacked on a number of occasions, including in 2004, when a bomb blast took place outside the Pakistan Bible Society. In both 2009 and 2010, churches were also vandalized in different areas of the city.
“Our society is numb and our conscience is dead,” Bishop Inayat said. “Discrimination has been going on for decades, and the victimization of Christians and minorities has increased because of the blasphemy law.”
One church leader told me that Mr. Bhatti was “not that active” among Christians in Karachi, while others begged to differ.
“He came to Karachi to console me over my father’s death a few months ago,” recalled Victor Javed, a parishioner at St Jude’s Church in North Nazimabad’s DeSilva Town.
“Even if he was not there in times of joy, he was always there in times of grief. He had a good character, and he would always personally offer condolences to families. There have been a large number of prayers and services for him in our church.”
On a personal note, I have to say that many people here in Pakistan were surprised that Shahbaz Bhatti’s name was apparently not mentioned in any single major church in Karachi last Sunday, but a well-placed church source told ANS that it was for “security reasons” — a precaution to keep themselves away from any threats.
Although Pakistani Christians, Muslims, Hindus, the civil society and also the international community, have condemned the assassination of Mr. Bhatti, it can be assumed that they feared reprisals. Some are even of the opinion that this was a “wise step” while others say that “the churches should have prayed for him.”
Rodrick Samson is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan.