Decades of terrorist atrocities in Pakistan have finally awakened a desire for the country to move closer to embracing religious freedom, the brother of a murdered government minister has told a meeting in Westminster.
Dr Paul Bhatti, whose brother Shahbaz was assassinated in 2011 after pressing for the reform of the country’s notorious blasphemy laws, said Pakistan was beginning to tire of religiously-motivated violence that has cost an estimated 60,000 lives in 20 years.
He told a meeting in Parliament that he believed his country was improving even though “we are still facing the cruel and harsh realities of violence against the weak and voiceless people of our community”.
Dr Bhatti said the culmination of repeated atrocities “has left our entire nation shocked and discouraged, raising many questions” about whether Pakistan was going in a right direction and whether it was properly governed.
He said the country had now reached the point where “we can gain inspiration and courage by looking to those who have gone before us who stood for peace, justice and unity at such great cost”.
“I am pleased to share with you that I feel and see that Pakistan is changing,” Dr Bhatti said. “Present military and civilian operation against terrorism is bringing fruits: all extremist organisations are banned, most terrorist groups are weakened, killers of my brother are arrested and one was killed.
“The people of Pakistan are gradually coming out of oppression and fear, which has dominated them for many years.”
“The Supreme Court recently upheld the death sentence of a police bodyguard who killed Salmaan Tazeer over his support for blasphemy law reform,” Dr Bhatti continued, adding that other verdicts have “given us great hope” that the peaceful, tolerant and religiously plural society envisioned by the founder of Pakistan, Mohamad al Jinna, might eventually be realised.
The a Catholic missionary surgeon is the older brother of Shabhaz Bhatti, the Minister for Religious Minorities gunned down by Islamic extremists who were opposed to his agenda for religious toleration.
He assumed his brother’s office at the invitation of the Pakistani government and is now also the chairman of his brother’s political party, the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance.
Dr Bhatti’s remarks were made at a meeting hosted this week by Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic charity, and came just months after the death sentence imposed on Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman accused of blasphemy, was suspended pending a review of her case by the country’s Supreme Court.
But they also came a week after evidence was presented privately to the Government by UK-based Pakistani Christians who argued strenuously that their home country is too dangerous to repatriate Christians who were seeking asylum.
Both the private hearing and the ACN meeting heard the testimony of a 36-year-old Pakistani Christian asylum seeker who told how she witnessed her husband’s murder at the hands of a Muslim mob.
She said that when she complained to the police she was imprisoned and then tortured with lit cigarettes by some of the men she had named as her husband’s killers. With the complicity of police officers, the men, she said, then raped her.
Wilson Chowdhry of the British Pakistani Christian Association told the ACN meeting that the Pakistan remained in the grip of a “cultural genocide operated by the people living next door to you”.
“How do you escape that?” he asked. “What level of policing can stop that?”
ACN has listed Pakistan as a country in which religious persecution is severe and the UN has ranked it among one of the worst countries in the world for the abuse of human rights.
An ACN report last month revealed that at least 50 Christians have been killed by mob violence in Pakistan since 2001, including a 13-year-old boy who in April was doused in petrol and burned alive after he admitted he was a Christian.
A mob of 1,200 Muslims last November also seized Christians Shahzad and Shama Masih, dragging them from their Punjab home and beating them savagely in front of their two small children before they were thrown into a brick kiln and burned.
Besides the threat of mob violence, the blasphemy laws make it a capital offence to desecrate the Koran or insult Mohammed, the founder of Islam, but Christians say they are often falsely accused to persecute and destroy them.
The UK Government is nevertheless giving £405 million in foreign aid to Pakistan in this year alone, without attaching any demands for improvements to the security of persecuted minorities.
Rehman Chishti, the Conservative MP for Gillingham and Rainham, and the Muslim son on an imam, told the ACN meeting that the Pakistani Ministers privately acknowledged that the blasphemy laws were damaging their country’s reputation.
“Quite clearly they are used to persecute Christians,” Mr Chishti said.
“When I see progress in Pakistan I want to see the son of a vicar elected by a 95 per cent Muslim constituency,” he added. “Then I will know there is true reform.”
The meeting was also addressed by the Rev. Rana Khan, who served as an adviser to Dr Rowan Williams when Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that British Pakistani should exert pressure on the relatives to embrace religious pluralism.
About 96.4 per cent of the 199 million population of Pakistan are Muslims. Ninety per cent are Sunnis and the Shia minority has often been the target of terrorist attacks.
Christians and Hindus account for 3.6 per cent of the population.
It emerged last week that decades of persecution of religious minorities has driven all but one Jewish person out of Pakistan.
Fishel Benkhald has revealed himself to be Pakistan’s only “self-declared” Jew after a small but thriving community of 3,000 people at the time of partition from India in 1947 gradually fled the country.