A little over a week ago, I met with a marked man. Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's Minister for Minorities, is the first Christian invited into Pakistan’s cabinet – and remaining after last week’s cabinet shuffle reduced its size from 60 to 22 ministers. His responsibilities place him near the top of the list for those publicly targeted for assassination in his home country by the Taliban and by homegrown Pakistani extremists.
Mr. Bhatti’s life is in danger not so much because of his faith – although in Pakistan the mere accusation of blaspheming the name of the prophet Mohammed can result in a death sentence – but because he has made it his life’s work to pursue the recognition of human rights in Pakistan; and since joining the cabinet two years ago has pursued the initiative of changing the blasphemy laws which threaten all non-Muslims in the country.
Until 1947 when Pakistan was birthed as a nation, it formed the northern portions of India. British rule until that time had resulted in the imposition of laws for the keeping of the peace that included a prohibition on criticizing the faith of another. The 1860 British law read that “every man should be suffered to profess his own religion, and that no man should be suffered to insult the religion of another.” The law was intended to establish freedom of religion that would avoid violence between the Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and other smaller faith communities spread through the vast country.
Mohammed Al-Jinnah, leader of the fledgling nation, envisioned a moderate Muslim republic where all faiths were free to practice without restriction. Christians, faced with the choice of fleeing to Hindu dominated India or remaining in moderate Muslim Pakistan, stayed where their freedom had been promised them.
But Jinnah died before Pakistan’s constitution was finalized and the nation enter on a less moderate path that incrementally altered the original British law until it became only illegal to criticize Islam, and then legislated that essentially an individual would be punished if simply accused by one other of criticizing the prophet Mohammed.
This is not dissimilar to the establishment of Human Rights Commissions to administer Bills of Rights and Human Rights Codes in Canada. The commissions and legislation originally intended to encourage acceptance, or at least tolerance, for one another (not necessarily agreement or approval) have been twisted into weapons directed toward those who disagree or disapprove. Also similar, is the use of these laws by a minority of zealous activists to punish those who intend simply to live freely in a democracy based on their own conscience – and, often, innocent and harmless principles of belief.
In Pakistan, many, mostly Christians, are imprisoned (or have “converted” to Islam for their own and their family’s protection to avoid the harsh penalty of the law) and at least one is known to be awaiting execution because one other accused her of blasphemy.
A week and a half ago, I had the privilege of meeting Shahbaz Bhatti. This remarkable and humble man knows his life is threatened – he has experienced assassination attempts and he has spent time in prison for his faith – and knows his international travel presents opportunity to leave Pakistan and to carry on his pursuits from safer quarters. This message struck home even more clearly after Punjab’s governor, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated in early January by a member of Taseer’s security detail.
The Toronto Sun notes:
Bhatti met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and several cabinet ministers during his visit to Ottawa. According to a spokeman for the prime minister, the two men discussed the importance of standing up for the rights of religious minorities. Bhatti also thanked Harper and immigration minister Jason Kenney for their support of minority rights.
On our meeting in the cold and freedom of Ottawa, Shahbaz Bhatti was preparing to head home and asked not for a more trustworthy security detail but for prayer, so I’m inviting you to pray with me: for him; for the Christians daily facing persecution in his country; and, for the changes needed to secure the freedom of religion that was envisioned by the nation’s founder for all of Pakistan’s citizens.