Goodbye, Good Man: Shabaz Bhatti

A valiant defender of human rights in Pakistan, murdered for opposing the blasphemy law.

In July 2002, I received an email from my friend Shahbaz Bhatti, the president of the Christian Liberation Front in Pakistan. He had just convened a meeting of all of Pakistan’s oppressed minorities in order to work more successfully for their human rights and religious freedom. The Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmedis, Baha’is, and others from all the provinces of Pakistan formed the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) and elected Bhatti as the chairman. “Dear Sister Faith,” he addressed me in his usual style as a fellow Christian, “Pakistan’s opinion makers were noting that the religious minorities of Pakistan had made history by forming an alliance for the first time in Pakistan’s history, which would empower them ‘to resolve contentious issues which have been confronting them for decades.’” He was upbeat and hopeful when I replied to his email to congratulate him. I wish I had sent him more emails over the years.

Nine years later, Wednesday morning, March 2, 2011, I received word of my friend’s brutal slaying by jihadist proponents of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. He was 42. Bhatti, a Catholic who became Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities in 2008, was the only Christian government minister in the country. Amid numerous death threats, he had been working for years to overturn the draconian blasphemy laws in the country’s Criminal Code. The cowardly gunmen ambushed him just outside his mother’s home in Islamabad and riddled his car with bullets, according to reports. Reports also indicate that the gunmen appeared to know Bhatti’s movements and to know that he was without security that morning. He had not been given a bullet-proof vehicle by the government, although he requested one.

Bhatti had battled tirelessly defending the rights of the minority peoples of Pakistan. He was a voice for the marginalized, such as the 4% of Pakistan’s population that are Christians, who are deprived of education, and whose only jobs are sweeping the dung off the streets, cleaning sewers, living in a brickyard building bricks, or other such work. He was an advocate for Pakistani Christian parents whose daughters have been abducted, raped, and forced to marry their Muslim rapists, and for those children’s Muslim employees have decided it is easier to murder them than to pay them.

But in his battle to reform his country’s blasphemy laws, Bhatti was not only an advocate for all of Pakistan’s non-Muslim ethnic groups, but for Muslim victims of the laws as well. In fact, the blasphemy laws have been used as a weapon against Muslims more frequently than against Christians and other minorities. Their application has been capricious, vindictive, and irrational. They are used as a weapon to settle personal arguments and business and land disputes. The laws, a component of the Shariah, make any perceived insult of Mohammed, the Koran, or Islam itself, a crime punishable by death. The accusation against an enemy is enough. Then the burden of proof is on them to defend themselves, amid the chaos of a half-crazed mob already screaming for their blood.

Although no person charged with this capital crime has so far been executed by the state, many have been killed by mobs of enraged Muslims (what exactly they are enraged about is hard to say) or died in prison while awaiting trial. Any lawyer knows that his or her own life is at risk defending someone accused of blasphemy. And more than one judge, as well as the governor of Punjab State, Salman Taseer, has been assassinated for criticizing the trumped-up cases of blasphemy. Sherry Rehman, a liberal Muslim woman Member of Parliament who was working with Bhatti and Governor Taseer to overturn the blasphemy laws is now in hiding. And  even those charged with the “crime,” who do manage acquittal and release, have been forced to leave the country and even change their identity – usually because of a charge that was not true in the first place.

The first time the organization where I direct the religious liberty program, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, worked to save the life of a Christian accused of blasphemy against Mohammed made us aware of the absolute vulnerability of the tiny Christian community in Pakistan. In 1995, a 13 year old Christian boy, Salamat Masih was sentenced to death for blasphemy, after a Muslim neighbor accused him of writing insults about Mohammed on the outside of a mosque two years before. Masih’s complete illiteracy did not even faze his accusers. They merely countered that a demon must have inspired his writing. Because Pakistan was violating the U.N. convention on the rights of the child, of which it was a signatory, and because of tremendous international pressure, Masih was released and fled the country with his family. But others accused of blasphemy have not been as fortunate. Nor have been those who have attempted to help them.

Shahbaz Bhatti knew that he would not be here long. He told my friend Nina Shea, a Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Hudson Institute, that “he had never married because he did not think it would be fair to a wife and children to subject them to this concern.” Accepting USCIRF’s Religious Freedom Medallion in September 2009 he said, “I personally stand for religious freedom, even if I will pay the price of my life. I live for this principle and I want to die for this principle.” Bhatti recorded a video with the BBC four months ago and left instructions for it to be released if he were killed. In it he said, “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 the Cross, and I am ready to die for a cause.”

Since Bhatti’s death, condemnations of the appalling tragedy have come from many leaders across the globe. President Barack Obama said that he was “deeply saddened” by Bhatti’s assassination. “Those who committed this crime should be brought to justice,” he continued, “and those who share Mr. Bhatti’s vision of tolerance and religious freedom must be able to live free from fear.” Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd condemned the murder and said the “cowardly and brutal act is a blow to tolerance and moderation in Pakistan.” Others, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle made similar statements.

Now it remains to be seen who among these world leaders will actually take action for the beleaguered minorities of Pakistan, as well as making strong-sounding statements. Who will defend the Christians of Pakistan, now that this great, good man is gone?

Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).