To be a prophetic witness of Christ one does not necessarily need to go to faraway countries. Indeed, some do this among their own people. This was the case of Shabbaz Bhatti, an exemplary Christian.
Pakistan is the second largest Islamic state in the world. It is a country with widespread poverty and yet it is a strategic player on the international political scene. There are 200 million inhabitants in the country; and of these, 98% are Muslims. The Christians are a minority and in this situation there is a wide range of situations — all the way from peaceful living together with Muslims in mutual respect up to manifestations of intolerance and discrimination on an individual level, as well as grave violation of human rights carried out according to a blind application of an obsolete religious rule.
Shabbaz Bhatti was born at Khushpur, one of those many villages in the Punjab, the great region which lies in the north of the country. It is a land rich in history and traditions.
Khushpur is a unique village, created out of nothing. It was founded by Belgian missionaries at the beginning of the twentieth century to provide Christians with a safe and serene place to be together with a human and Christian formation. It was a happy village, as its name says: “land of happiness”. Khushpur has 8,000 inhabitants. The village has earned the nickname `the Vatican of Pakistan’.
Indeed, Khushpur is the heart of local Catholicity, a greenhouse for religious and lay vocations. So far, the village has given the country two bishops, 35 priests and more than 100 men and women religious, plus innumerable catechists and committed lay people.
Shabbaz Bhatti began his political commitment while he was still in the university. He decided to take action in promoting his ideals and being actively engaged. In 1985, as a student, Bhatti founded and served as head of Pakistan’s Christian Liberation Front. In 2002 he founded the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) and was elected as its chairman. The same year he joined the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 2002.
In 2008, President Asif Ali Zardari appointed him Federal Minister for Minorities; he was the only Catholic in the Cabinet. He always remained close to the common people. At the time, he said that he accepted the post for the sake of the “oppressed, down-trodden and marginalized” of Pakistan, and that he had dedicated his life to the “struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom, and to uplift and empower religious minorities’ communities.” He added that he wanted to send “a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair”, and also stated his commitment to reforming the country’s blasphemy laws. Bhatti had been the recipient of death threats since 2009.
On the morning of March 2, 2011, he left his mother’s home to go to his office. He travelled without a security detail. On his way his car was attacked by a group of men who opened fire, injuring him seriously. The driver survived the attack, but the Minister died on his way to the hospital. During the funeral his testament was read.
“My name is Shabbaz Bhatti. I was born into a Catholic family. My father, a retired teacher, and my mother, a housewife, educated me according to Christian values and the teachings of the Bible, which influenced me in my childhood.
Already as a child, I used to go to church and there I found profound inspiration in the teachings, the sacrifice, and the crucifixion of Jesus. It was my love for Jesus that made me offer my services to the Church. I was shocked at the appalling conditions in which Pakistani Christians found themselves. When I was thirteen, I listened to the Good Friday sermon which dealt with Jesus’ sacrifice for our redemption and for the salvation of the world. I felt called to respond to that love by loving my brothers and sisters; I wanted to serve the Christians, especially the poor and all those persecuted in this Islamic country.
I was often asked to stop my struggle, but I always refused, even at the risk of being killed. My reply was always the same. I do not seek popularity or a position of power. My only wish is to be at the feet of Jesus. I want my life, my character, and my actions to speak on my behalf and to proclaim that I am following Jesus Christ. This wish is so strong that I would consider myself privileged if, because of my helping of the needy, the poor, and the persecuted Christians of Pakistan, Jesus would accept the sacrifice of my life.
I want to live for Christ and to die for his sake. I am not afraid to live in this country. The extremists wanted to imprison me or kill me. They have threatened, persecuted and terrorized my family. I declare that, as long as I live, to my last breath, I will keep on serving Jesus and this poor and suffering humanity; the Christians, the needy and the poor.
I believe that the Christians from all over the world who helped the Muslims who were victims of an earthquake in 2005 have built bridges of solidarity, love, understanding, cooperation and religious tolerance between the two Faiths. If these continue to act in this way, I am convinced that they will win over the hearts and minds of extremists. This will bring about positive change. There will be no more hatred between peoples, and they would not kill one another in the name of religion. They will love one another, nurture harmony, and promote peace and understanding in this region.
I believe that the needy, the poor, and the orphans – whatever their religion may be – must, first of all, be looked upon as human beings. I believe that they are part of my body in Christ – the persecuted and needy part of the Body of Christ. If I fulfill this mission, I will have gained a place at the feet of Jesus and I will be able to look at him without feeling ashamed.” (C.C.)