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Shock and fear in Pakistan as minorities’ champion is killed

02 March 2011

by Ed Thornton

THE Archbishops of Canterbury and York have expressed “the greatest shock and sorrow” at the murder this week of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Religious Minorities in Pakistan, and leader of the Pakistan People’s Party.

Mr Bhatti, who was 42, was shot dead in Islamabad on Wednesday morning, after gunmen opened fire on his car as he made his way to work. A Roman Catholic who had been a leading campaigner against the country’s blasphemy laws, Mr Bhatti survived a Pakistani government reshuffle last month (News, 18 February).

In a statement released by Lambeth Palace on Wednesday, Dr Williams and Dr Sentamu said: “This further instance of sectarian bigotry and violence will increase anxiety world­wide about the security of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan, and we urge that the government of Pakistan will do all in its power to bring to justice those guilty of such crimes and to give adequate protection to minorities.

“Meanwhile, we assure Mr Bhatti’s family of our prayers and deep sympathy, and promise our continuing support for all those of whatever faiths who are working for justice and stability in Pakistan.”

The Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, the Rt Revd Samuel Azariah, condemned the “brutal murder” of Mr Bhatti.

“The Christian community are not only sad and hurt at this heinous act, but consider themselves absolutely unsafe in the present circumstances of Pakistan,” Bishop Azariah said in a statement.

He described the murder as just another example of the way in which Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were being “abused by the religious zealots. . . If this is not controlled, neither will democracy, law and order, or justice prevail in Pakistan.”  

The director of the Vatican’s press office, Fr Federico Lombardi, said that Mr Batthi’s murder “demonstrates that the Pope’s insistent addresses regarding violence against Christians and religious freedom have been justified”. The attack appeared to be connected to Mr Bhatti’s support for changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

Fr Lombardi noted that Mr Bhatti was the first Roman Catholic Catholic to hold his post. “He had affirmed his commitment for the pacific cohabitation between the religious communities of his country,” he said.

The Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, and the Bishop of Pontefract, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson condemned the assassination. Mr Bhatti visited Wakefield diocese last September to talk about the plight of minorities in his country, and to meet Asian Christian groups.

“It was a great shock to wake up this morning to hear that he had been murdered in cold blood by extremists, just days after being sworn into the new government of Pakistan,” Bishop Robinson said.

“He worked tirelessly as a Christian for minorities, and spoke out in favour of the repeal and reform of the blasphemy laws which were used so arbitrarily against Christians.”

This evening (Friday) a memorial service to remember the minister’s life and work will be held at St Cuthbert’s, Birkby, Huddersfield, for the local Asian Christian community; later this month a service of remembrance is expected to be held in London.

In a letter to the prime minister of Pakistan, Syed Yousef Raza Gilani, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, said:

“We urge the government of Pakistan to take all necessary measures to provide safety and security to the Christian minority in Pakistan, and other minorities, and not to be deterred by the violent crimes committed by religious extremists.”

“The WCC calls upon your Excellency’s government to swiftly undertake the investigation necessary to identify the assassins and bring all who are responsible for this brutal murder to a court of law.”

Christine Elliott, secretary for External Relationships for the Methodist Church in Britain, said: “The killing of Shahbaz Bhatti is deeply shocking. He is known to have understood the potential consequences for his stand on the interpretation of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, but as minister for minorities he was clear that it was his obligation to promote tolerance, acceptance and justice for Pakistani citizens regardless of their religious affiliation.

“His assassination fuels fear of growing sectarian bigotry and violence, not just in Pakistan but worldwide.”

Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide — at whose conference in London Mr Bhatti spoke in October 2009 — said: “Shahbaz Bhatti has tragically become another victim of violent intolerance and lawlessness in Pakistan. His loss will be felt keenly by all those pursuing justice and the rule of law.”

Mr Thomas said that Mr Bhatti had “made it his goal to overcome faith-based divisions, and had already built unprecedented bridges between religious leaders in Pakis­tan”. He co-ordinated a joint declaration last year, “in which leaders of all faiths denounced acts of terror in Pakistan”.

The director of Church in Chains, David Turner, who met Mr Bhatti in London in 2009, said that Mr Bhatti “was a brave man who devoted his life to the cause of religious freedom in Pakistan. He was outspoken in calling for changes to the blasphemy law, and it is this stand and his support for Aasia Bibi (News, 3 December) that has led directly to his death.”

Responding to news of Mr Bhatti’s murder, the general director of the Evangelical Alliance (EA), Steve Clifford, said it was “outrageous that the Pakistan government seems unable to protect minorities, and in particu­lar Christians”.

The EA’s head of public affairs, Dr Don Horrocks, who had also met Mr Bhatti, said: “The Pakistan government appears to be turning their backs on the problem. They repeatedly make concessions to those who would intimidate minorities, seeming at best passive, and at worst complicit, in the face of persecution of Christians and others.”

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