Five years have passed since Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities Affairs and the first Christian to hold such high office in the Federal Government of this Islamic country, was murdered. Up to now it is not clear who stood behind his assassination, though in fact the far more interesting questions are: who was this man and why did he die?
In Spring of 2011 the international Charity Aid to the Church in Need requested me to travel to Pakistan to work on the production of documentaries about the suffering Church for the media company Catholic Radio and Television Network. A bridge too far I thought to myself. Up to now they had never sent us “to war”. The only news coming out of Pakistan at the time related to assassinations, bomb explosions and the activities of Pakistan’s Taliban. Easter was fast approaching. Preparing ourselves in the Sant’Egidio Community we read fragments of Shahbaz Bhatti’s testament, barely a month after his murder.
His words were remarkable: “I remember it was on Good Friday before Easter, when I was just thirteen years old, I heard a sermon on how Jesus sacrificed, gave us redemption and salvation to this world. This was the moment when I thought to reflect on Jesus’ love for us, which led me to sacrifice my life by serving Christians, especially the poor, needy, persecuted and victimized in this Islamic country. I have this passion and believe that they are part of our body in Christ”.
He continued: “ I do not want popularity; I do not want any position. I just want a place at Jesus’ feet. I want my life, my character, my actions to speak for me and show that I am following Jesus Christ. Because of this desire, I will consider myself even to be more fortunate if – in this effort and struggle to help the persecuted and victimised Christians of Pakistan – Jesus Christ accepts the sacrifice of my life. I want to live for Christ and I want to die for Him.” I felt embarrassed. I knew already that I wanted to go to Pakistan to try and recount this man’s story. Several months later we landed in Karachi together with Father Andrzej Halemba and a team of Aid to the Church in Need. A year later we managed to return with a camera crew.
Shahbaz Bhatti was born in 1968 in the Punjabi Christian village of Khuspur – one of few such places on the map of Islamic Pakistan. “We studied in a Christian school, we lived in a Christian village and we didn’t have any problems, but in the government school, where the majority of students were of a different faith, he was surprised at how many of them showed reserve, saying that they were not allowed to eat together with Christians, from one plate, with the same utensils. For him it was very, very strange. He was really angry and regarded it as inhuman”, remembers his brother Paul.
With time, and ever more clearly, Shahbaz began to understand the truly difficult reality that Pakistan’s two percent Christian minority lived under. More often than not poor, with no resources for education, suffering job discrimination, pressured to convert to Islam, treated unequally before the law, but above all threatened by draconian blasphemy laws. Father Pervez Emmanuel, who knew Shahbaz from childhood, remembers how not only the young boy’s sense of justice struck him, but the depth of his faith. A faith nourished by every day prayer, God’s Word, as well as by a sympathy, compassion and frank relationship with the poor.
Whilst he came from a reasonably prosperous and well educated family, he spent whole days amongst donkey herdsmen, brick factory workers or road cleaners, trying to understand them and help them in their difficult material situation. In secondary school he began to attract others to his initiative, and soon founded the Christian Liberation Front, which with time became the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) – an organisation that not only embraced discriminated Christians, but also Hindus, Buddhists as well as representatives from other religious minorities.
Wherever something was happening – violence, rape, flooding, earthquake… – they were there. “He was always ready to go to the victims, wherever that might be. You could see how he sympathised with them. In some places he nearly cried for them. He felt what the people felt”, recollects Father Bonnie Mendes. Many Muslims, whom he greatly respected, numbered amongst his friends. He was extremely proud of being a Pakistani. He believed in a Pakistan that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder, talked about, who wanted a country based on Islam, all at once pluralistic, in which people of all religions could find a home.“He was definitely a man with a dream, with a vision, that people of different faiths can live here together “, believes Archbishop Joseph Coutts from Karachi.
The brave pursuit towards realising this dream led him at the end of 2008 to being appointed Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs in the government made up of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto’s party. Within a short time he managed to introduce a law guaranteeing minorities a five percent share of public posts, including parliament. He became a minister, personally involved in difficult issues confronted by ordinary people, amongst others Asia Bibi – a Catholic wife and mother of five children convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. His open criticism about misuse of the blasphemy laws resulted in an ever growing number of threats against him. Albeit conscious of the growing danger, clearly not wanting to die nor looking for death, he didn’t decide to back down from his commitment to help discriminated religious minorities. On March 2nd 2011 his car was sprayed with gunfire outside his Islamabad home. Twenty seven bullets found their target.
Two years before his death, in yet another quote from a book that has become his spiritual testament (Christiani in Pakistan. Nelle prove la speranza, Marcianum Press, Venezia 2008), Bhatti wrote “My human body is wounded but these wounds are not physical wounds, they are the wounds of worry, of grief, of the sorrows and pains of the persecuted Christians of Pakistan, of the needy and the oppressed Christians. We are one family with the people who are in need. Thus as a family we should share the sorrows, the grief’s and the sufferings of each other”. I am deeply convinced that these words remain equally relevant today, as much to me, as to us all.