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Pakistani Christians welcome the ‘astounding’ news that Minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, has retained his position in the government

Pakistani Christians welcome the ‘astounding’ news that Minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, has retained his position in the government. Despite his battle to amend the blasphemy laws and also his requesting a pardon for Asia Bibi, Bhatti has survived a major government reshuffle.

Many Pakistani Christians are delighted with the news that Minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, has survived a major Government reshuffle that took place on Thursday, February 10, 2011.

Shahbaz Bhatti makes a point

I can now reveal that the Federal Minister has retained his profile as Federal Minister for Minority Affairs.

In recent times, Bhatti has become a lightning rod for extremists in Pakistan, who have issued multiple death threats against him, including beheading, because he had proposed an amendment to the country’s controversial blasphemy law and also his recent request for a pardon for Asia Bibi, the 45-year-old mother of five, who was been sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy.

For myself, and many other Christians in Pakistan, this is an astounding development, as there were reports that the Ministry of Minority Affairs would not be included in the new federal cabinet, but I have discovered that the Central Executive Committee (CEC) took notice of the concerns of the minorities and invited Mr. Bhatti to the oath-taking ceremony.

Bhatti made history by becoming the first parliamentarian to assume the office of Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs. His predecessors from the minorities’ communities were only offered the portfolio of State Minister for Minorities Affairs.

Newly constituted Federal Cabinet takes the oath of office (Photo supplied by (APMA) — The Advocacy and Media Cell of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance)

According to reliable sources at the President’s house, the government was under pressure from many in the international community to retain the Ministry of Minority Affairs so as to take notice of the growing violence that has been taking place against minorities in Pakistan.

For instance, a Christian youth was murdered [by hanging] recently near Ghakkar Mandi in Gujranwala City, and Asia Bibi is awaiting a formal trial from the Lahore High Court.

First interview since retaining his position

Shahbaz Bhatti, in his first interview after retaining his profile, said, “I thank God for giving me this opportunity to continue my struggle for the oppressed minorities in Pakistan. Minorities are equal citizens of Pakistan and have the same rights that of any other citizen. Our forefathers sacrificed their lives for Pakistan.

“As I said before this latest news was announced, whether I remained a minister or not, I have vowed to continue my struggle for the minorities, and now the Pakistan People’s Party (PPC) has given me this opportunity on the basis of competence and efficiency.

“I will not disappoint the leadership of the party and also the people of Pakistan. The doors to my office are open to every citizen of this country. They can come to me and explain their problems. I will do whatever is possible to resolve the matter.

“I will also visit Gujranwala and meet the family if the deceased Christian youth.”

Background to the government reshuffle

The Pakistani government reshuffle began last Wednesday (February 9, 2011), when the entire cabinet submitted their resignations to Prime Minister Gilani. This was as a result of a reshuffle announced by the Premier to overcome the economic crisis. (The former cabinet was the world’s largest).

On Thursday, President Asif Ali Zardari accepted the resignations of the Federal cabinet.

The Pakistan Peoples Party’s Central Executive Committee, after meetings with their coalition partners, finalized a list of 23 Federal Ministers and a State Minister. The CEC finalized the list on the basis of “competence and efficiency”.

On Friday evening, President Asif Ali Zardari, swore in 22 Federal and one State Minister at the Presidency in Islamabad. The list of the Federal Ministers was 23, but the Former Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, refused to take the oath in the new cabinet, and according to sources, Qureshi was informed by the leadership that his profile was being changed, and he immediately refused to take the oath stating that due to his “personal commitments” he could not take the oath. A chair was placed for him in the main hall of the President’s House, but it was removed after his refusal.

According to sources, Qureshi had a different opinion about the Raymond Davis issue, the American who has been charged with shooting two Pakistani’s who he claimed were trying to rob him. This case has caused a huge row between the United States and Pakistan, over the U.S. stance that Davis should be given diplomatic immunity.

To make matters worse, today (Sunday, February 13, 2011), the Pakistani Taliban demanded that the country’s government execute the U.S. official, or hand him over to the Islamist militant group.

“We demand that the Pakistani government hang Raymond Davis or otherwise hand him over to us. We will decide his fate,” Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Azam Tariq told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Qureshi’s absence from the cabinet is a major setback for the Pakistan Peoples Party’s government. There were some reports that, in case of any change at the top level in the future, Qureshi may be the next Prime Minister.

Qureshi’s refusal came at a critical time as Zardari is set to visit the United States and Qureshi himself was scheduled to travel to Washington to attend the tripartite meeting with the U.S. and Afghan foreign ministers.

Pakistan and India are also scheduled to begin formal peace talks next month and the Qureshi’s exclusion of the cabinet will have some impact on the Foreign Ministry’s role in the coming days.

But still, the good news for Pakistan’s minorities, including the Christians of our country, is that they still have in place their champion, Shahbaz Bhatti, to fight on their behalf.

Rodrick Samson is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan.

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