Comment Comment and Features

Behold a martyr for religious freedom

Shahbaz Bhatti at the US bishops’ HQ in Washington DC, 2009: ‘I live for religious freedom, and am ready to die for this cause’

On the morning of March 2 2011, I woke up, opened my emails and turned on the radio to hear the news that my close friend Shahbaz Bhatti had been assassinated. His car had been sprayed with bullets and his security protection team was nowhere to be seen.

I was shocked, deeply saddened, but not surprised. He had been receiving daily death threats for years. I always thought it was probably only a matter of time. Shahbaz and I used to speak by phone at least once a week. I travelled in Pakistan with him. On one occasion, we missed a bomb together by five minutes. We had been meeting for dinner with others in the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad and had left the premises just minutes before an explosion.

On another occasion, Shahbaz took me to meet a seven-year-old girl, Sharee Komal, who had been raped and tortured because she came from a Christian family. Shahbaz was helping her and her family, because no one else would.

I have many memories of Shahbaz between 2004 and 2009, when he was placed on Pakistan’s ‘‘exit control list’’, prohibiting him from leaving the country, and when he was being arrested or threatened with arrest. I remember speaking to him by phone almost daily during certain crisis points, and being constantly impressed by his calmness and courage. Of course, at times he was fearful, and with very good reason.

But the mark of courage is not an absence of fear, but a matter of how one handles fear. Shahbaz never allowed fear to paralyse or overcome him.

We worked closely, not only advocating for victims of religious discrimination and persecution, but also campaigning for reform of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws. During the five years I specialised in Pakistan, Shahbaz was a grassroots human rights activist who co-founded the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) with his mentor, Cecil Chaudhry, whom I was also privileged to call a friend.

Cecil and Shahbaz were my closest partners in Pakistan. They were men of exceptional integrity, courage and faith. Both devout Catholics, they were at the forefront of campaigning for the rights of minorities of all religious backgrounds, and for women. Cecil had been a highly decorated war veteran, an ace fighter pilot in the Pakistan Air Force and a national hero who had turned activist when Pakistan’s dictator General Zia ul-Haq denied him promotion on the grounds that he was a Christian. Cecil resigned in protest, and became a prominent voice for religious freedom.

Shahbaz was a young student when he met Cecil, in 1992. Their partnership, combining Cecil’s wisdom with Shahbaz’s idealism, made them an inspiring duo. In 1985, at just 17, Shahbaz formed the Christian Liberal Front with fellow students, after experiencing first-hand discrimination and, at the same time, a spiritual awakening. He was like a son to Cecil, who praised his commitment, saying: “He never faltered from his goal, not for one minute, not even when he became a minister.” Cecil died in 2012, after a battle with cancer, aged 70.

When I worked with Shahbaz, I was amazed by his devotion to the cause he had made his own. I remember he once told me that he had never taken a holiday, and he worked extraordinary hours. He said he was in a battle, in the trenches, and when you’re a soldier in a war you don’t get holidays.

He was one of the most selfless people I have ever known. In 2007, for example, a Christian community in Charsadda, in the North-West Frontier Province, received an ultimatum from extremists: convert to Islam or face the consequences. The night the deadline expired, I phoned Shahbaz to ask for an update. To my surprise, he told me he was in Charsadda. The community were terrified, he said, and they expected an attack at any moment, so he had gone to be with them. That was typical of Shahbaz.

He was a man of enormous humility, but with a good sense of humour as well. He never wanted to grandstand or receive credit. His only interest was in making a difference for the persecuted, oppressed and marginalised. The various international prizes he received, as well as his audience with Benedict XVI, a meeting with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and encounters with US Congressmen, were all viewed in the same way by Shahbaz – as valuable opportunities for advancing the cause, never as moments of personal
aggrandisement.

Even when he became Pakistan’s minister for minorities affairs, he maintained a simple lifestyle. After taking the oath of office, he told the media: “I, as a humble servant of Jesus Christ, will continue to serve the suffering, victimised and persecuted communities, and am ready to even sacrifice my life to defend the principles of religious freedom, human equality and the rights of minorities.”

He lived each day with the knowledge that he might one day pay the ultimate price, but never once did I see him morbid or depressed. He had the serenity and humour of someone who knew that his fate, and the cause for which he was fighting, were in the hands of his maker. When he came to London on an official visit, not long before his murder, he was keen to have photographs taken of him smiling, because, he joked, there were too many “serious pictures” of him.

Shahbaz was deeply devout in his Catholic faith. Whenever I spoke to him, his first request was always for prayer. Not once did he ask for money. According to his friend Michelle Chaudhry – Cecil’s daughter – who worked closely with him, he would pray twice a day and for long hours into the night. His office and home were blessed with holy water on a regular basis.

“He would not leave home without praying, and would often call on priests and nuns to pray for his work,” recalls Michelle. “He read the Bible regularly.” His personal Bible is now placed on the altar in San Bartolomeo all’Isola in Rome as a relic of a 21st-century martyr.

Shahbaz became a member of parliament in 2008. He was a strong supporter and confidante of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007. He had been at the rally where she was killed. After her party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), formed a government, Shahbaz was appointed minister for minorities affairs.

This was the first time a Christian activist of his calibre and conviction had held the post. There had been token Christian ministers before, but he was the first who one knew would really fight to make a difference.

Shahbaz lived up to his promise to continue to serve the suffering. When eight people were killed and more than 100 houses destroyed in Gojra in 2009, he immediately visited the scene and refused to leave the police station until the crimes were registered. When the Christian mother of five Asia Bibi was sentenced to death on blasphemy charges, he said: “I will knock [on] every door for the release of Asia Bibi.”

He also built bridges with Muslims and promoted interfaith dialogue and reconciliation. He spoke in large mosques at the invitation of senior imams and secured a groundbreaking statement from religious leaders denouncing terrorism. He also launched a network of “district interfaith harmony committees” to encourage dialogue and unite communities through common concerns.

And he constantly emphasised his patriotism. “Minorities are sons of the soil,” he said. “Pakistan belongs to them and they belong to Pakistan. They have made sacrifices and shed their blood for the creation and development of Pakistan.”

In October 2009, Shahbaz came to London to address the annual conference of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. As usual, his first request was for prayer. He summed up his life’s vocation in these words: “I live for religious freedom, and I am ready to die for this cause. We have a commitment to bring a change in the lives of people. We will bring a change in the life of those who are living in darkness, we will bring a change in the lives of those who don’t have a hope, and we will bring a smile on the faces of those living under severe harassment and victimisation …”

He continued: “This is the key objective of my life – to live for those who are voiceless, who are suffering. We need to change the plight of those who are living in the darkness of persecution, victimisation, and that is the commitment we made, to bring justice for those who are denied justice.”

Shahbaz challenged head-on the “forces of intolerance”, promising that, in unity with others, “we will not allow you to capture our country”. He called on his audience to join with him in this struggle: “Let’s pledge that we will work together to promote harmony and tolerance. We will bridge the gaps among different faiths. We will strengthen this world with the message of peace and tolerance.”

At the heart of Shahbaz’s work, particularly as minister, was an effort to reform, or repeal, Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws which have been so widely misused with such disastrous consequences for many.

But it was this campaign that in the end cost Shahbaz his own life. As he proposed reforms to the laws, the death threats increased in number and intensity. He knew he was in grave danger, but repeated requests, by him and by many of his influential international friends, for a bullet-proof car were ignored by the Pakistani government. Four months before his murder, he recorded an interview with the BBC, for broadcast in the event of his death. He said: “These Taliban threaten me. But I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of the Cross and I am following the Cross. I am ready to die for a cause. I am living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights.”

These words encapsulate the essence of Shahbaz Bhatti, and should stand as his epitaph.

Benedict Rogers works for the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and is the author of five books, including The Very Stones Cry Out: The Persecuted Church – Pain, Passion and Praise, co-authored with Baroness Cox. He is currently writing a book about his own conversion, From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church, which will feature Shahbaz Bhatti’s story

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (27/2/15). Also in this week’s issue: Andrew M Brown says all baptisms should have a touch of The Godfather, Mary Kenny on the wisdom of Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife and Colin Brazier says we should breed like rabbits. Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!