A prominent and long-time Christian human rights activist was recently appointed as Pakistan's federal minister for minorities affairs and recruited as a member of the cabinet – the first time a minorities affairs minister has a cabinet-level post.
Shahbaz Bhatti, founder and president of All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), is the minister for minorities affairs and will be defending minorities' rights, especially religious, in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim – 95 percent of the Pakistani population is Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Christians and rights groups are hopeful that his cabinet position will give them a more powerful voice in government affairs. In the past, the protection of minorities was relegated to a lower ranking official who worked under one of the government ministers.
"We warmly welcome his appointment and congratulate the President and Prime Minister of Pakistan on this decision," said U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide chief executive Mervyn Thomas, in a statement Wednesday.
Thomas noted that the organization has known and worked with Bhatti for many years.
"We hope that the whole Government of Pakistan will support Shahbaz in his new position, and that significant progress will be made towards the protection of equal rights for all the people of Pakistan, and the repeal of the widely-abused blasphemy laws which cause so much misery for so many," he added.
For many years, Bhatti has been the foremost activist for the repeal of the country's blasphemy laws and for equal rights for all religious minorities.
The country's blasphemy laws have been widely abused to persecute Christian minorities, who are often falsely accused of insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammed or desecrating the Quran.
Pakistani Muslims often are motivated by personal reasons, such as land dispute or other small arguments, when they accuse Christians of blasphemy.
Last summer, Younis Masih, 29, was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammed.
According to APMA, the day before the young Christian man was arrested he had reportedly asked a neighbor to turn down the volume of some loud religious music. He was subsequently beaten unconscious by a mob and his wife was also beaten when she attempted to intervene.
In addition to the unfair blasphemy laws, the Pakistan National Assembly has also considered passing a new apostasy bill that would sentence to death all Muslim men converting from Islam and impose life imprisonment for women apostates.
David Drew MP (Member of Parliament), who traveled to Pakistan with CSW in 2005 and met with Bhatti, praised the Pakistani government's decision for appointing a prominent activist to the cabinet and voiced hope for improvement for the country's minorities.
"I was deeply impressed by Shahbaz Bhatti's courage, commitment and personal sacrifice in pursuit of the cause of human rights and justice for all the people of Pakistan, and by his extraordinary dedication to championing the rights of religious minorities who face severe discrimination and persecution," Drew said. "His appointment by the President of Pakistan to this ministerial position, and the decision to promote the post to Cabinet-rank, is to be warmly welcomed."
Bhatti founded the Christian-inspired APMA movement in 1985, and one of his first campaigns was against the blasphemy law that was introduced in 1986. The Christian community is the hardest hit by the blasphemy laws.
As the new minister for minorities affairs, Bhatti has promised to propose legislative reform to protect minorities' rights and promote unity and understanding between different groups.
"Jesus is the nucleus of my life," Bhatti said when he took the oath for office in November, according to Asia News, "and I want to be His true follower through my actions by sharing the love of God with poor, oppressed, victimized, needy and suffering people of Pakistan."