A group of mainly Christian leaders have gathered in the Pakistani city of Lahore to honor the life of Shahbaz Bhatti, 41, the minister of minorities, who had made a life’s work of campaigning for tolerance in Pakistan, which is 95 percent Muslim, and most recently became a lonely voice, with a handful of others, in a campaign to reform the harsh blasphemy law.
After the assassination in January of the Punjab Province governor, Salman Taseer, who had also publicly called for changes to the blasphemy law, Mr. Bhatti feared for his life but continued, though more quietly, to work toward his dream of ultimately repealing the law, his associates said
Bhatti was savagely gunned down on March 2, 2011, in Islamabad by assassins who sprayed the Christian minister’s car with gunfire, striking him at least eight times, before scattering pamphlets that described him as a “Christian infidel.” The leaflets were signed “Taliban al-Qaida Punjab.”
The gathering, organized by The All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) on Sunday, May 22, 2011, began at the Ambassador Hotel in Lahore with a documentary about Bhatti’s struggle for the rights of religious minorities, interfaith harmony and tolerance in his country.
It also featured his battle to try and win the release of Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian mother of five who has been sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy.
The gathering was attended by Church leaders and representatives of all recognized Churches in Pakistan, Parliamentarians, Politicians, APMA leadership and APMA workers from across the country.
Group Captain (Retd.) Cecil Chaudhry, Executive Secretary General of the APMA, was the keynote speaker. In his address, he highlighted the life and works of “Martyr Shahbaz Bhatti,” his numerous achievements prior to becoming the Federal Minister for Minorities which included the formation of The All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA).
He emphasized Mr. Bhatti’s struggle was to make Pakistan a “non-discriminative State” as envisioned by the Father of the nation, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, where, he said “every citizen would enjoy equal rights and complete freedom of religion.” This said Chaudhry meant a “complete separation of state from religion.”
Cecil Chaudhry emphasized that “the only way forward for Pakistan is to adopt the vision and ideology of the founding father in its true spirit.”
He vowed that the APMA will “continue to strive to realize Shahbaz Bhattti’s dream,” which he said was the repeal of all discriminatory laws, the blasphemy laws in particular, and to make Pakistan a non-discriminative state where every citizen would have equal rights, religious freedom and equal opportunities in a free society.”
Dr. Paul Bhatti, brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, and the new Chairman of The All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, said in his address, “I love my homeland and I want to die for a cause like my brother did, I want to make his dream come true and I’ll lead my people like he used to.”
Dr. Bhatti, a surgeon by profession, was based in Italy prior to the assassination of his brother. However he returned to Pakistani and was subsequently appointed to his new position. He has also been appointed Advisor to The Prime Minister of Pakistan on Minority Affairs, with the status of a Federal Minister.
Dr. Paul Bhatti vowed to “strive to accomplish the cause and mission” of his late brother and to lead APMA with Shahbaz Bhatti’s “vision and ideology.”
The Anglican Bishop of Lahore, The Rt. Rev. Dr. Alexander John Malik, expressed concern about the rights of minorities in Pakistan. He stated that Christian politicians were clean, with no corruption allegations against them, “not even in WikiLeaks.”
In reference to the murder investigation into the death of Shahbaz Bhatti, he accused the Urdu press of “bias” against the Christian community.
“We Pakistanis are experts at conspiracy theories. The Urdu press is trying to change reality,” he claimed.
Ms. Beelam Hussain, president of the women’s wing of the Pakistan Peoples Party, said that Shahbaz Bhatti’s death was a “great loss” to the country.
“I have a high opinion about the Christian community as my schooling is from Sacred Heart School and I have a great love and respect for my Christian teachers and friends,” she said.
Rich tributes were also paid to the life, work and achievements of Shahbaz Bhatti by Bishop Sebastian Shah, Bishop Samuel Azariah, President PPP Women’s Wing Lahore, Faiza Malik, Advisor to the Governor of Punjab, Bushra Malik, Father Yousaf Mani, Father Abid Habib, MNA Samina Khalid Ghurki, and MPAs Saghira Islam, Najmi Salim, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, Pervaiz Rafique, Prince Javed, Saleem Khokar and others.
The moving event concluded with the participants taking an oath to “stay united and to carry forward Shahbaz Bhatti’s mission.”