Ever the proponent of Jinnah's founding vision, the Pakistan Minorities Minister pioneered interfaith initiatives. He built bridges.
The Pakistani Minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, died at the age of 42, shot by a gunman outside his mother's Islamabad home, defending the cause to which he had dedicated his life. He was assassinated for his unrelenting opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy laws and the injustices and intolerance they encouraged. In his official capacity, he represented the interests of Pakistan's religious minorities. However, Bhatti also stood for those subscribing to the vision of Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, characterised by pluralism, freedom of religion and the rule of law.
Born to Roman Catholic parents in Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab, Bhatti grew up in Khushpur, a town in Faisalabad district. He was one of six children. His father, Jacob, was a teacher. In his teens, Bhatti experienced the spiritual awakening to which he attributed his life's work, saying he had decided to give his life to serve others, as he believed Christ had done for him.
Bhatti founded the Christian Liberation Front (CLF) in 1985 while studying for his master's in political science and public administration at the University of Punjab, Lahore. The movement sought to restore the rights of Pakistan's religious minorities and promote tolerance. Pakistan's population is now estimated to be 185 million, of which around 75 per cent are Sunni Muslim, 20 per cent Shia Muslim and 4-5 per cent follow other religions. Of these, Hindus and Christians each make up 1.5-2 per cent, and the remaining 1 per cent include Ahmadi Muslims, Baha'is, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and others. The CLF initiative was a brave decision given the deteriorating treatment of non-Muslims under the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88). The group experienced violent opposition from the start.
Undeterred by this, and by the death threats and state intimidation that came later, Bhatti undertook everything from prison visits and aid distribution to political advocacy and legal support. In 1992, the CLF launched the first national campaign against the blasphemy laws. For this campaign, Bhatti first joined forces with the veteran activist, educationalist and war hero, Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry, who was to become his lifelong mentor.
In 2002, Bhatti, Chaudhry and others founded the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), and Bhatti was unanimously elected to lead this nationwide coalition of minority representatives and NGOs. APMA was founded on the back of a landmark campaign, led by Chaudhry and uniting these diverse, faith-based groups. They succeeded in convincing the government to replace the separate electorate system, described by some as “religious apartheid,” under which religious minorities could vote only for candidates of their own faith. Bhatti received international awards for his leadership of CLF and APMA, but he was at his best working on the frontlines of activism. When the Christian villagers of Charsadda called him in fear of imminent attack from local extremists, he travelled to the north-west to be with them. When eight were killed and more than 100 houses destroyed in the Punjab city of Gojra in 2009, Bhatti (by then a government minister), refused to leave the police station until the crimes were registered.
Bhatti's move into politics was an unlikely but strategic decision, taken in the perceived best interests of Pakistan's religious minorities. Despite joining the Pakistan People's Party in 2002 and gaining Benazir Bhutto's respect, he had turned down three earlier governmental opportunities.
Bhatti was elected to the National Assembly in 2008 and assumed the role of Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, now a Cabinet-level position for the first time. He was the only Christian Minister. While privately lamenting the distance his job placed between him and those he represented, Bhatti capitalised on his ministerial position. His achievements include a 5 per cent minorities quota in government jobs, the first minority seats in the Senate and a 24-hour minorities helpline. He gained the respect of international leaders, as seen in the global reaction to his death.
Bhatti did not live to see the fulfilment of his ultimate goal, the repeal of the blasphemy laws. He had painstakingly negotiated amendments since 2009, but much of this progress ceased after the assassination of Punjab's Governor, Salmaan Taseer, in January. Bhatti intended to continue, and his reappointment to the new Cabinet last month was encouraging.
The last time I saw Bhatti in person was in September 2010, at a small reception we at Christian Solidarity Worldwide had organised for him in London. He joked that there were too many “serious pictures” of him — the images in the media portrayed the required sobriety of a Pakistani statesman, rather than the jovial man he was — a man who knew the gravity of his task but who retained the joy of one who has passed the moral burden on to a higher authority. A mini-photoshoot ensued. I like to remember him smiling.
Ever the proponent of Jinnah's founding vision, Bhatti pioneered interfaith initiatives. He built bridges. He spoke at large mosques at the invitation of senior imams and eventually, in July 2010, secured a groundbreaking joint statement from religious leaders to denounce terrorism. He further launched a network of “district interfaith harmony committees” to encourage dialogue and unite communities through common concerns. Bhatti had big plans and saw Pakistan leading the way for other countries. In his own words, he wanted to “make this world beautiful by delivering a message of peace, togetherness, unity and tolerance.” His mother, four brothers and a sister survive him. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011