Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian cabinet minister in Pakistan and a life-long advocate for religious freedom, was assassinated in his car on March 2, 2011. He had courageously fought for religious minorities and against the country’s blasphemy law, which outlaws insulting Islam.
Anticipating his killing, Shahbaz arranged for a video interview to be sent to news agencies within hours of his death. Threats by al-Qaeda and the Taliban would not intimidate him from speaking out for “oppressed and marginalized persecuted Christians and other minorities” in Pakistan, he declared.
Where did his strength come from? He stated:
“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 cross, and I am following of the cross, and 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. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles. I prefer to die for my principle and for the justice of my community, rather than to compromise on these threats.”
The murder comes two months after Punjab governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard. Both men were targeted by Islamists for speaking out in defense of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was accused by Muslim women of insulting Muhammad and was sentenced to death last November.
Shahbaz’s gunmen threw leaflets after the ambush warning that others who oppose the blasphemy law would meet the same fate. “With the blessing of Allah, the mujahideen will send each of you to hell,” it said.
Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab — a branch of the Taliban in Pakistan — told the BBC it was responsible for killing Shahbaz. “We will continue to target all those who speak against the law which punishes those who insult the prophet. Their fate will be the same,” said its spokesman.
Anyone found guilty of insulting Islam — and convictions can be based on hearsay — can be sentenced to death. While no one has been executed in Pakistan under the blasphemy law, 30 accused have been killed by vigilantes and hundreds have received lengthy sentences. A local imam threatened that if Asia Bibi were pardoned or released from prison, people would “take the law into their own hands.”
Oftentimes, accusers use the law to persecute minorities or to pursue a grudge. Many of the accused are Muslim, or from a different Muslim sect. A 17-year-old student was accused of blasphemy for an answer on an exam. A doctor faced charges for tossing out a business card from a salesman named Mohammed.
Shahbaz warned that the blasphemy law was being used to victimize the innocent.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in 2009 awarded Shahbaz Bhatti its first religious freedom medallion. “I personally stand for religious freedom, even if I will pay the price of my life,” he told USCIRF. “I live for this principle, and I want to die for this principle.”
Upon learning of Shahbaz’s assassination, Leonard Leo, chairman of USCIRF, said, “Threats against his life were widely known, but Minister Bhatti continued to courageously advocate against the forces of violent extremism and the blasphemy law.”
The 42-year old Shahbaz once told religious freedom advocate Nina Shea that he had not married because it would not be fair to a wife and children to subject them to the constant death threats he faced. At the end of each day, he left his government office to work late into the night at the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, a group he ran for years to help Pakistan’s persecuted minorities.
Security forces informed Shahbaz of a plot against him. But they did not increase his security.
“I have struggled for a long time for justice and equality,” he told the BBC. “If I change my stance today, who will speak out? I am mindful that I can be assassinated any time, but I want to live in history as a courageous man.”
Shahbaz encouraged minorities to fight for their rights peacefully, using the political system and not violence.
The Pakistan newspaper Dawn reported that after taking his oath of office in 2008, he said he accepted the government position to help the “oppressed, downtrodden and marginalized.”
“I want to send a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment, and despair. Jesus is the nucleus of my life, and I want to be His true follower through my actions by sharing the love of God with the poor, oppressed, victimized, needy, and suffering people of Pakistan,” he said.
After his death Dawn reported that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told an overflow crowd of mourners at a Roman Catholic church in Islamabad, “People like him, they are very rare.”
Hina Gill, a member of the Christian Minority Alliance, said, “These terrorists are wearing the mask of religion to defame religion.”
Badruddin Chaudhry, a Muslim attended the funeral. “Shahbaz Bhatti has tried hard to promote interfaith harmony, but those who want to destabilize Pakistan have killed him,” he said.
Pakistan and other Islamic countries have introduced resolutions at the United Nations against “defamation of religions” that would create an international standard against blasphemy.