(Photo: AP / Anjum Naveed)
Christians and civil society groups got together for candlelight vigils in Pakistan's major cities Friday to mark the first anniversary of the assassination of the country's Christian federal minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, who bravely spoke against the repressive blasphemy laws.
At vigils in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, Christian leaders and social activists carried placards and shouted slogans condemning 42-year-old Bhatti's murder a year ago and religiously motivated violence that continues to plague the country, local media reported.
Bhatti, the minister for minority affairs and the only Christian in the country's cabinet, was shot to death by suspected Islamist terrorists on March 2 last year while he was on his way to a government meeting in Islamabad. The pamphlets found near the assassination scene bore the name of the terror outfit Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab and stated, "Anyone who criticizes the blasphemy law has no right to live."
The governing Pakistan People's Party also paid tribute to Bhatti, a Catholic, and called him a martyr. "The blood of martyrs and those committed to a tolerant, democratic, pluralist Pakistan that respects rather than allows the murder of its minorities will not go in vain," party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of President Asif Ali Zardari, said in a statement Friday.
The party leader also promised to protect religious minorities. "The forces of darkness will not give up easily but neither will we," he said, alluding to the persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Islamic nation of Pakistan.
The blasphemy laws Bhatti opposed are embedded in Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code. These sections are often misused to target religious minorities – Christians, Shi'as, Ahmadiyyas and Hindus. They allow Islamist extremists to justify the killing of minorities and propagate their belief that killing a "blasphemous" person earns a heavenly reward. The laws carry no provision to punish a false accuser or a false witness of blasphemy. Local Muslims frequently seek revenge by making allegations against their adversaries who are non-Muslim.
A month before he was killed, Bhatti visited the United States and was interviewed by The Christian Post. "I received a call from the Taliban commander and he said, 'If you will bring any changes in the blasphemy law and speak on this issue, then you will be killed,'" he said. "But I want to make it clear that I am mindful that in the struggle to protect the religious freedom, the rights of minorities, and to raise the voice against the blasphemy law, I can be assassinated. I can be killed. But I will continue to follow the principles that I believe. I will continue to raise the voice of the voiceless. And I will not feel fear because of these threats because I follow Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us. So as a follower of Christ, my destiny is to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves."
Bhatti was also remembered in the United Kingdom. Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide in London, paid tribute to "our friend Shahbaz, whom we miss dearly, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this time." He said in a statement that Bhatti's "commitment both as a grassroots activist and a politician, not to mention his faith" was an inspiration for many.
The president of the Bishops' Conference of Scotland, Keith O'Brien, called for the church to consider declaring Bhatti a saint. In a statement released Friday, he expressed hope that the church will look into the option of canonizing Bhatti.
Hours after the statement by the Pakistan People's Party, partially announced results of the senate by-election for about half of the 104 seats indicated a big win for the party. Zardari's party and its allies had won 32 out of the 49 seats contested.
While the ruling party has promised to tackle Islamist extremists also in the past, there has been little change in the country's atmosphere since the assassination of Bhatti, which was preceded by the killing of the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who too had publicly criticized the blasphemy laws.
Bhatti's killers are still at large and Christian groups doubt the credibility of the police investigation. "It is crucial that his murder investigation reaches a satisfactory conclusion, not only to do justice and honor the memory of Shahbaz himself, but also to make it clear that the rule of law still means something in Pakistan," Thomas from CSW said.
Meanwhile, two terror attacks – not related to Bhatti's death anniversary – were reported Friday in northwest Pakistan along the Afghan border. Early morning, militants from the Lashkar-e-Islam group attacked security personnel in Khyber tribal agency. At least 10 soldiers and over 20 fighters from the terror outfit were killed. Hours later, a suicide bomber, suspected to be from the rival Pakistani Taliban group, killed 23 people at the base of Lashkar-e-Islam in the region. The actual number of casualties was not known as the area is inaccessible for the media.