On average, one Christian is murdered every month in Pakistan, according to persecution watchdog Open Doors.
This month, we mourn the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti.
For many U.S. Christians, this may be the first time hearing about him. Though his life might have gone unnoticed in America, his death must not be overlooked.
For just a little over two years, Bhatti served as minister for the defense of minorities in Pakistan, the South Asian country where approximately 95 percent of the country is Muslim. He was the first-ever Christian appointed to a senior Cabinet post.
Braving death threats from Islamic extremists, Bhatti spoke out for the rights of minorities, including Christians, and denounced the country’s blasphemy laws – which penalize those who defile Islam, its prophets, and the Quran, and those who insult another’s religious feelings – as they were often misused to persecute religious minorities.
As Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, told The Christian Post earlier this year, “Many innocent people have been killed. Many are in prison. Many are facing situations of life and death under the blasphemy laws.”
According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a total of 1,032 persons have been charged under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2009. Before then, no blasphemy case was registered and there were no extrajudicial killings, according to Bhatti.
And though there have been no executions yet under the blasphemy law, it has not prevented the killing of Christians, as the aforementioned statistic revealed.
Extremists are not keen on making any changes to the law, which has been criticized as vague and open-ended. Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, a Muslim, was killed in January for his opposition to the law. Bhatti was the next target.
He was gunned down in his car on March 2 in broad daylight just as he was leaving his mother’s home in Islamabad.
Fliers endorsed by al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban Punjab were left at the scene. They warned others who oppose the blasphemy laws that the same fate awaits them.
So why should Christians in the U.S. care about Bhatti’s death?
Firstly, the lone voice in the cabinet representing Christians and other minorities – whom Bhatti called “the voiceless” – is now gone. That’s 4-5 million Christians without a voice.
Bhatti was also likely the last cabinet member willing to stand up against extremists, not letting fear paralyze him in his march for human rights and religious freedom.
As Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester in the Church of England, pointed out, "Moderate Muslim opinion has been cowed by the ever-present threat of violence and the non-Muslim communities are helpless in the face of unwillingness by the Government and the army to really tackle extremism."
Secondly, if Islamic extremists are capable of killing a high-profile cabinet member, the small Christian population remains at great risk.
The “many” innocent people that Bhatti said were being imprisoned and killed could turn into a lot more.
Jesus identified all followers as brothers and sisters. “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother,” Jesus said (Matthew 12:50). That means for Christians in the U.S., the family extends to Pakistan. And there, our brothers and sisters need someone to speak out for them.
Just a day before his death, Bhatti wrote to the secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, telling Christians around the world that “it is time to stand in solidarity.”
As we try to pick up the mantle that Bhatti left behind, we should look to his life as an example and as a challenge to Christians and ask ourselves if we realize the meaning of the cross as he did. And if we do, can we follow it as bravely?
“I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us,” Bhatti said to Al Jazeera. “I know what is the meaning of the cross and I follow the cross and I’m ready to die for a cause. I’m living for the community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights.”