Shahbaz Bhatti’s “Remembrance Day” is a reminder how to mend our wounds to reclaim Christian faith.
My walk in recent years as an advocate of human rights and religious freedom has taught me the power of diversity, acceptance, and patriotism. It can be an uplifting experience to learn you are walking the unfinished walk of someone who stood for the vision of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, to pave the paths to religious freedom and human rights.
A man who chose martyrdom rather than renounce his cause to build a society, where people regardless of their faith or religion are intellectually, socially, and politically empowered. Adopting the slogan, he penned in 2004 with his blood ink, at a minority youth conference in Lahore, Pakistan, “I will continue my struggle till success or martyrdom” he enriched the nation with the nobility of his cause that extends well beyond the borders of his country.”
Every day, a portrait hanging on the wall in our living room reminds me of the sheer courage of a leader who risked his life to break the shackles of radical ideologies and sectarian hatreds.
Standing in front of the portrait, I try to transport myself back to the days when Shahbaz Bhatti started his struggle from a young age to champion the rights of oppressed not only his fellow Christians but also Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, Shia Muslims. He not only empathised with the victims of sexual violence, forced conversions and blasphemy laws but also courageously advocated for their rights and religious philosophies.
I try to imagine Shahbaz as a true hero who refused to flee Pakistan despite serious threats to pursue ground-breaking interfaith initiatives to teach us all that policy and dialogue can bend radicalism. Undeterred by the death threats from the militants and extremist groups, he launched a campaign to challenge the system that oppressed religious minorities undermining the stability of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).
Shahbaz Bhatti, founded the Christian Liberation Front (CLF) 1985 and All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) in 2002. He was elected as the Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs in 2008. On March 2, 2011, he was shot dead as a result of his rigorous advocacy to reform the blasphemy laws. His assassins shot him 25 times at close range before dispersing pamphlets that designated Shahbaz as a “Christian infidel”.
Shahbaz’s death marked Pakistan’s darkest day that spread shockwaves around the world. International leaders including then the UK Prime Minister, U.S. President, condemned his killing. Far from the corridors of power, Shahbaz became a prominent international figure to give voice to the voiceless, a great liberator who sacrificed his life to preserve religious freedom for future generations.
As Lord Alton, crossbench peer and co-chair of the Pakistan Minorities APPG, describes in his tribute “Shahbaz Bhatti’s life was given to the cause of common humanity wherever and whichever minorities suffer or are persecuted they should look to the story of Shahbaz Bhatti for inspiration”.
In the face of growing radicalization at home, Shahbaz successfully represented the interests of Pakistan to strengthen international relationships. He fearlessly challenged the foothold of extremist ideologies, systemic persecution and netted the support for building a stronger, fairer, and more prosperous Pakistan.
Stephen Harper, former Prime Minister of Canada, correctly described him: “I am privileged, in the course of my service as Prime Minister, to encounter many extraordinary individuals and, from time to time, even among all of these extraordinary people, someone is exceptional one such person I met in my office on Parliament Hill in 2011, he was the Minister of Minorities of Pakistan, Shahbaz Bhatti”.
Similarly, in October 2009, Shahbaz accompanied the President of Pakistan for an official visit to meet Pope Benedict XVI and also arranged his meeting with community Sant’Egidio to discuss the collaboration of a national dialogue between religions.
One of my profound memories with Shahbaz was when I met him in the early hours of 28th January 2011, prior to his departure to Washington D.C to attend the National Prayer breakfast. While I remember how warm the air was in the morning, as usual, Shahbaz was tired with a quavering voice like he never slept for weeks. However, I was struck by his words “I am determined, unafraid and committed to live or die for my cause”.
During this trip, he also called on Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister and Jason Kenny, presently serving as Premier of Alberta for a shared commitment to advance the efforts of FoRB.
Nevertheless, Shahbaz brought a sense of common purpose across faiths in Pakistan to defend the claims of the oppressed and bravely raised the negative trends curtailing the right to religious freedom. He brought together minority stakeholders, legislators, and religious scholars to promote social justice, and human equality.
Moving from frontline activism to the quarters of politics, he truthfully made a difference to help the government to understand how minorities suffer in the absence of effective policies, social justice, and legal frameworks.
Firstly, in 2010, as a Minister, he announced to set up a National Interfaith Council aimed at promoting brotherhood, harmony and co-existence among various sects and faiths.
Secondly, he campaigned to observe 11th August as “National Minorities Day” to commemorate the speech of the country’s founder to the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, in which he expressed his vision for a democratic Pakistan.
Thirdly, he emphasized the importance of job quota in government posts, and the reservation of Senate seats for minorities to end their social and economic marginalization.
Fourthly, he propelled interfaith dialogue to promote harmony, diversity and proposed legislation with faith leaders to ban hate speech to provide space for diversity of beliefs.
Finally, he also remained focused to exert maximum pressure on the government highlighting the flagrant issue of religious hostilities including misuse of blasphemy laws.
For instance, in 1997, the Shanti Nagar massacre burned down an entire Christian village, and immediately Shahbaz launched a protest demanding the government arrest the perpetrators. Following the attacks on Hindus and Christians in Noswhera in 2005, he powerfully advocated against the misuse of the blasphemy law and urged the authorities to ensure the safety of minorities and their religious places. In 2009, he spoke out in defence of Christians attacked in mob violence that erupted in Gojara and a year later he stood up in the defence of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother who was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. She was finally acquitted of blasphemy charges after spending eight years on death row.
Shahbaz always remained focused on his Christian life that’s why he never lacked spiritual dynamism and appetite for praying. He always believed prayer is not just us talking to God, it is also God talking to us. And that’s how he makes himself available to God.
In 2009, US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Washington awarded him the International Freedom of Religion award, for championing the rights of minorities in Pakistan. The President of Pakistan also conferred Hilal-i-Shujaat (Gallantry) award to Shahbaz Bhatti in 2011. In addition, Shahbaz Bhatti’s cause for beatification was formally opened by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, in 2016 announcing him a Servant of God within the Roman Catholic Church.
Shahbaz’s assassination shocked every corner of Pakistan and the world. It still does and it still should. Even after 11 years of his assassination, his legacy cannot be reduced to silence. His greatest act of generosity was he gave his blood to lubricate every cog of his motherland, so in years to come the flame of democracy and religious freedom would not ever burn low. His bloodshed was not only a senseless act of violence but also a beginning of a new era.