Shahbaz Bhatti’s death will not stop the struggle for blasphemy reform

Pakistani Christians shower rose petals on the casket of Shahbaz Bhatti earlier today (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani minister for minority affairs, is the latest victim of the vile hatred towards Christians that has become entrenched in parts of Pakistan.

He was murdered in broad daylight because of his demand for change to the blasphemy laws – the root cause of Christians and other religious minorities suffering in Pakistan.

The blasphemy laws have several sections but Section 295-C, added in 1986 by the late president Zia ul Haq, is considered the most stringent. This section first stated that whoever defied the name of the Prophet Mohammad should be punished with death or life imprisonment but was made even more severe when the federal Sharia court later removed any reference to life imprisonment and instead made the death penalty mandatory.

Since then, these laws have been used as a tool by extremists and even some of the mainstay of the Muslim community to settle their personal grudges or seize the possessions of Christians, such as property or businesses. All minorities have been affected but Christians continue to be the principal targets. Innocent Christians have been killed in broad daylight, some burnt alive. Churches have been attacked and Christian villages have been burnt to ashes.

Yet hardly anybody has been held to account for these heinous crimes and all the while, the blasphemy laws hang like a sword over the heads of Christians. It is a sword that can drop at any time and when it does the consequences are generally devastating.

Understandably, Christians have long been demanding the repeal of these laws or at the very least the implementation of appropriate changes to put a stop to their misuse. Unfortunately every government thus far has bowed down in front of the religious extremists and refused to make any changes.

When the Pakistani court sentenced Asia Bibi to death for blasphemy last November, the issue of the blasphemy laws was highlighted in the national and international media. The Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and the Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, took this matter seriously, meeting Asia’s family and promising to see justice done.

While Salmaan Taseer took Asia’s appeal for pardon to the president, Shahbaz was appointed to form a committee to review the blasphemy law. The result was to annoy the religious political groups who started protests throughout the county and fixed a price on the heads of Asia and Salmaan Taseer.

As we have seen, those who have dared to challenge the status quo have been made to pay with their lives. On January 4, Salmaan Taseer was killed by his own security guard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, who in his statement to the judge in court denied any wrongdoing. Qadri said he had only done what he had been instructed to do by the Koran – no doubt inspiring words to other extremists. The killer has now become a hero and instead of condemnation for his crime, jubilant crowds of Muslims have shouted his praises, kissed him and showered flowers upon him.

Mr Bhatti is the latest victim of the radicals’ distorted thinking, punished once and for all for challenging the blasphemy laws and defending long-suffering Christians. He criticised the controversial blasphemy laws at every occasion and even continued to do so after receiving death threats in the wake of Salmaan Taseer’s murder.

With two government ministers dead in two months as a result of their concerns over the plight of minorities, surely this is the time for the government to take this matter seriously and bring about change to stop the killing of more innocent people.

Extremists may have silenced Salmaan and Shahbaz for opposing the blasphemy laws but there are many others who will continue to speak. Campaigns to reform these laws will continue and the blood of Salmaan and Shahbaz will not have been shed in vain. There are people still willing to stand up for the rights of those persecuted and pressed down by these unjust laws, even if the ultimate goal demands their blood too.