DECADES of terrorist atrocities in Pakistan have finally awakened a desire for the country to move closer to embracing religious freedom, Dr Paul Bhatti, the brother of a murdered government minister, told a meeting in Westminster this week.
Dr Bhatti is a Roman Catholic missionary surgeon whose brother Shahbaz was assassinated in 2011, after pressing for the reform of the country’s blasphemy laws (News, 4 March 2011). He said that Pakistan was beginning to tire of religiously motivated violence that has cost an estimated 60,000 lives in 20 years.
“I feel and see that Pakistan is changing,” Dr Bhatti told a meeting in Parliament. “Present military and civilian operation against terrorism is bringing fruits: all extremist organisations are banned; most terrorist groups are weakened; killers of my brother are arrested, and one was killed.”
He said that the peaceful, tolerant, and religiously plural society envisioned by the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, might eventually be realised.
Dr Bhatti assumed his brother’s ministerial office at the invitation of the Pakistani government, and is now also the chairman of his brother’s political party, the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance.
Dr Bhatti’s remarks were made at a meeting hosted this week by the RC charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), and come months after the death sentence imposed on Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian accused of blasphemy, was suspended pending a review of her case by the country’s Supreme Court (News, 24 July).
But they also came a week after evidence was presented privately to the UK Government by Pakistani Christians in the UK, who argue that Pakistan is too dangerous for Christians who are seeking asylum to be repatriated there.
Both the private hearing and the ACN meeting heard the testimony of a 36-year-old Pakistani Christian asylum-seeker who told how she witnessed her husband’s murder at the hands of a mob. She said that when she complained to the police, she was imprisoned and tortured by some of the men she had named as her husband’s killers. With the complicity of police officers, the men raped her, she said.
The chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, Wilson Chowdhry, told the ACN meeting that Pakistan remained in the grip of a “cultural genocide operated by the people living next door to you”.
The UN has ranked Pakistan among one of the worst countries in the world for the abuse of human rights. Christians there say that the blasphemy laws are often used to persecute them.
A report by ACN last month said that at least 50 Christians had been killed by mob violence in Pakistan since 2001, including a 13-year-old boy who, in April, was doused in petrol and burned alive after he admitted he was a Christian.
A mob of 1200 Muslims in Punjab last November also seized two Christians, Shahzad and Shama Masih, dragging them from their home and beating them in front of their two children, before they were thrown into a brick kiln and burned.
The UK Government is giving £405 million in aid to Pakistan this year, without attaching demands for improvements to the security of persecuted minorities.
The Conservative MP for Gillingham and Rainham, Rehman Chishti, a Muslim, told the ACN meeting that the Pakistani Ministers privately acknowledged that the blasphemy laws were damaging their country’s reputation. “Clearly they are used to persecute Christians,” Mr Chishti said. “I want to see the son of a vicar elected by a 95-per-cent-Muslim constituency,” he said. “Then I will know there is true reform.”
The meeting was also addressed by the Revd Rana Khan, who served as international interfaith dialogue assistant to Dr Williams when he was Archbishop of Canterbury. Mr Khan said that British Pakistanis should exert pressure on their relatives to embrace religious pluralism.