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Shahbaz Bhatti – In Memory Of A Man Who Stood Firm

On the first anniversar y of his cold-blooded assassination, the international community paused to remember Pakistan minorities minister  Shahbaz Bhatti, who had campaigned for the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

A year after the assassination of Pakistan’s Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti his family is determined to continue the mission of the man they call a “diamond.”

“He was a lone voice but we want to follow in his path,” said his sister, Jacqueline, speaking after a memorial service in Toronto
which included his favourite hymn, Praise the Lord, sung in Urdu. “We all have to make sacrifices.”

“Pakistan is going through a difficult phase in history,” said his brother Dr Paul Bhatti, advisor to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who is promoting inter-faith dialogue in Pakistan. “So many are falsely accused of blasphemy.”

Dr Bhatti is chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, which is calling for a Judicial Committee of Inquiry review into his brother’s murder case. The Alliance says the police have failed to uncover a motive or bring the culprits to justice. Arrests have been made but the case is far from a solution.

Shahbaz Bhatti was Pakistan’s only Christian minister, a courageous reformer who worked to free minorities from the draconian Blasphemy Laws which sanction the death penalty for insulting Islam, causing widespread suspicion, mob violence and murder.

On March 2, 2011 he was on his way to a cabinet meeting when he was gunned down in broad daylight in a residential area of Islamabad. His death provoked outrage and condemnation around the world, including from US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Pope and other faith leaders.

Bhatti was travelling without security despite asking for protection after receiving death threats following the 2009 massacre of Christians in Gojra in the Punjab. He had just left his mother’s house when a white Suzuki Mehran stopped his car and assassins shot him a reported 30 times, leaving pamphlets at the scene signed by the Punjabi Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban. The group told the BBC they carried out the attack because Bhatti was “a known blasphemer.

The pamphlets said: “In your fight against Allah, you have become so bold that you act in favour of and support those who insult the Prophet. And you put a cursed Christian infidel Shahbaz Bhatti in charge of the Blasphemy Laws review committee.”

Bhatti, who was 42, was the second highprofile opponent of the Laws targeted last year: two months previously Salmaan Taseer, the Punjab Governor, was shot by his own guard.

His daughter Shehrbano said, “Justice will be done. It may take 100 years but my father has taken the first step and others will  follow.”

The Blasphemy Laws were foisted on Pakistan by General Zia ul-Haq in 1986. More than 500 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 120 Christians, 15 Hindus and ten others have been charged under them.

“Once a law is made in the name of religion no one can touch it,” said Shehrbano Taseer,whose brother Shahzad is still missing after being abducted last August.

“The state has abdicated its responsibilities. The majority of our dignitaries and government officials are spineless. There is no will to implement existing laws. Why were four armed men allowed to drive around the capital city? Why did they carry Kalashnikovs? Why are guns given out so easily? And why did these men feel justified taking the law into their own hands?”

She says the state has failed to provide an alternative to extremists in terms of economic and educational opportunities. “The madrassa system – spewing venom and hatred left, right and centre – is not monitored and extremists are freely raising another generation.”

Bhatti’s close friend and parliamentary colleague Tahir Naveed said he believed Shahbaz did not die in vain. “As a direct result of his murder we have four more seats for minority parties. Our voice will be heard because of his sacrifice.”

Last March Pakistani officials condemned Bhatti’s killing, but TV stations quickly abandoned the story, concentrating on internal politics and the cricket. There is little appetite for investigation. Journalists are targets for attack: in January radio journalist Mukarram Khan Atif was dragged out of his mosque and shot. In the face of seeming state intransigence the world reacts with impotent outrage.

“The authorities have failed to bring Shahbaz Bhatti’s killers to justice and remain deafeningly silent on the issue of the Blasphemy Laws,” says Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “Fear has been perhaps the chief characteristic of the period since Bhatti’s death, with an increasing number considering leaving the country.”

CSW says Bhatti’s former associates report a deterioration in the treatment of minorities, with the failure to bring his murderers to justice making them feel they are targeted with ever greater impunity.

Accusations of blasphemy continue: “The victims, as always, are forced to go into hiding. There has been an increase in abduction, rape, forced marriage and conversion against women and girls from minority communities.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, urges the Pakistan government to bring the guilty to justice and protect minorities:

“Most Muslim thinkers are embarrassed by supposedly ‘Islamic’ laws… that conceal murderous oppression and bullying. Their voices are widely noted; they need to be heard more clearly in Pakistan where part of the problem is the weakening of properly traditional Islam by the populist illiteracies of modern extremism.”

Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistan Director of Human Rights Watch, who moved his family to Britain last year after receiving threats, said:

“Bhatti’s ruthless and cold-blooded murder is a grave setback for the struggle for tolerance, pluralism and respect for human rights in Pakistan.”

Shahbaz Bhatti was “precious like a pearl, irreplaceable,” said his niece Christina Yusif. “A leader like that doesn’t just happen. We miss him so much.”

His family urged him to move to Canada but though he predicted his own death at the hands of the Taliban he refused to go into hiding and said:

“I know the meaning of the cross and I’m following the cross and I’m ready to die for a cause. I’m living for my community and for suffering people.”

Shehrbano Taseer said: “The majority of Pakistani dignitaries fell silent after my father’s murder, but Bhatti spoke out and condemnedit. Many times. I will never forget that. He continued to support the revisions to the Blasphemy Laws. knowing he was up against a clerical tsunami. I salute his bravery.”

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