‘I ask the Lord Jesus that the moving sacrifice of Shahbaz Bhatti will awaken in people’s consciences courage and a commitment to safeguarding religious freedom.’ – Pope Benedict XVI
People gather around the casket of slain Catholic minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti after a memorial Mass at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Islamabad. CNS photos
BANGALORE, INDIA – More than 20,000 Christians from all over Pakistan flocked to the remote village of Kushpur in Faisalabad diocese for the funeral of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s assassinated minister for minorities.
“It was a very emotional funeral with the people wailing and weeping all through,” Mr Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the Pakistani bishops’ justice and peace commission, told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview on March 4.
Bhatti, 42, a Catholic, was assassinated by unidentified gunmen who pumped bullets into his car from automatic weapons as he was being driven to his office in Islamabad on March 2.
The final leg of the funeral was led by Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad, joined by two Protestant bishops and dozens of Catholic priests.
Bhatti’s body was flown to Kushpur in the afternoon from Islamabad, after a memorial Mass at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Islamabad. Bishop Rufin Anthony of Islamabad-Rawalpindi was principal celebrant.
Thousands of Christians, religious leaders, foreign diplomats and government officials led by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani attended the Islamabad service, which included a state salute.
“Today is a very sad day,” said Mr Gilani, describing Bhatti as a “very rare leader”.
“All the minorities [in Pakistan] have lost a great leader,” he said.
Bhatti, the first Catholic to serve as minister for minorities, received several threats against his life after criticising the country’s anti-blasphemy laws, which have been used to persecute Christians and other religious minorities.
He became a target of Islamic extremists in November after he initiated a clemency petition for Ms Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five sentenced to death for blasphemy.
Since the Jan 4 assassination of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who also urged the repeal of the blasphemy laws, Bhatti had been a public figure speaking out against the laws.
A note found at the crime scene led authorities to believe Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a radical Muslim group, was responsible for the murder, the Catholic agency AsiaNews reported.
After an emergency meeting led by Lahore Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha, president of the Pakistani Catholic bishops’ conference, the country’s Christian leaders urged the government to “go beyond the rhetoric of ‘minorities enjoying all the rights in the country’ and take practical steps to curb extremism in Pakistan”.
“If the country becomes a killing field of the democrat and liberal individuals who exercise their freedom of conscience and expression, it would embolden the criminals trying to take charge of the country,” the Church leaders warned.
Meanwhile, an official of the Pakistan bishops’ said the body would meet in late March to review a proposal to ask the Vatican to formally identify Bhatti as a martyr.
Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan, president of the bishops’ Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, drafted the proposal.
He told the Vatican’s missionary news agency, Fides: “Bhatti is a man who gave his life for his crystalline faith in Jesus Christ. It is up to us, the bishops, to tell his story and experience to the Church in Rome, to call for official recognition of his martyrdom.”
Bishop Anthony of Islamabad-Rawalpindi told AsiaNews that Bhatti was “a courageous, fearless man who had taken a very strong position in support of minorities”. The bishop believed that because Bhatti was so outspoken about minority rights, “the minister paid the price with his blood”.
Bhatti had said at an event in Ottawa, Canada, on Feb 7 that “I follow the principles of my conscience, and I am ready to die and sacrifice my life for the principles I believe”.
Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi have also weighed in on the tragedy.
The pope prayed on March 6 that the killing would awaken people to the need to protect the freedom of religious minorities.
“I ask the Lord Jesus that the moving sacrifice of the life of the Pakistani minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, will awaken in people’s consciences courage and a commitment to safeguarding the religious freedom of all men and women and, in that way, promote their equal dignity,” the pope said during his midday Angelus address.
The pontiff had received the late minister last September during which he spoke about his commitment to promoting peaceful coexistence between the religious communities of his country.
Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, in a commentary for Vatican television, said Bhatti will be remembered as “a valiant witness of faith and justice”.
Bhatti founded the Christian Liberation Front in his student days and launched the All Pakistan Minority Alliance in 2001. He joined the Pakistan Peoples Party in 2002.
When the party, under President Asif Ali Zardari, assumed power in early 2008, Bhatti was named to the National Assembly under the quota reserved for Christians and was soon the federal minister for minority affairs.