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Catholics remember Shahbaz Bhatti one year after murder
By Alan Holdren and Kevin J. Jones
Shabbaz Bhatti, Pakistan. Credit: ACN
Shabbaz Bhatti, Pakistan. Credit: ACN

.- The first anniversary of the murder of Pakistan Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti witnessed several memorials and acclamations for the man many say should be declared a martyr.

Scotland's Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien has said the Catholic Church should “very seriously examine” whether he might be declared a saint.

“From what we know of his life and work Shahbaz Bhatti appears to have been a true man of God, who led a life of heroic virtue,” the Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh told Aid to the Church in Need March 2.

“His commitment to Christ suggests that here is an individual whose life and faith is worthy of examination and it may be that in the fullness of time Shahbaz Bhatti is raised to the dignity of the altars.”

Bhatti, a Catholic and the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, defended the freedom of religious minorities and spoke against persecution before he was murdered by gunmen last year.

“Shahbaz Bhatti left a deep impression of an honest and deeply committed public servant,” Archbishop emeritus Lawrence J. Saldanha said in a Feb. 25 statement sent to CNA. “He was quite different from the rest of the self-serving and corrupt politicians. He was a staunch, practicing Catholic and inspired by the life of Jesus Christ. Like Christ, he stood up for truth, justice and freedom for the common man.”

“This witness of imitation of Christ finally lead him to shed his blood for his people. He is considered a ‘martyr’ by the Christian people. They mourn the loss of a committed champion of their rights.”

The minister was a strong critic of Pakistan’s strict anti-blasphemy law, saying it was consistently used to harass and intimidate religious minorities, mostly Christians. The law imposes sentences including execution and life imprisonment for offenses against Islam.

Bhatti’s opposition to the law resulted in death threats from Islamic extremists.

On March 2, 2011, he was attacked by three men as he left his mother’s home in Islamabad by car. Two men pulled the minister from the car while a third shot him with an automatic weapon.

A leaflet left at the scene called Bhatti an “infidel Christian.” They charged that he was on a committee working to overturn the blasphemy law, though the Pakistan government has denied the existence of such a committee. His assailants still have not been arrested.

In February 2011, he had told Vatican-based Fides news agency that he would not change his stance.

“Pray for me and for my life,” he said. “I am a man who has burnt his bridges. I cannot and will not go back on this commitment. I will fight fanaticism and fight in defense of Christians to the death.”

He also recorded a video to be released in the event of his death.

“I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of ‘cross,’ and I follow Him to the cross,” Bhatti said.

Cardinal O’Brien said it would be “wonderful” to think that Bhatti could become “a patron for justice and peace in Pakistan or indeed Asia.”

In March 2011, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan unanimously decided to make a formal request that the Vatican name Bhatti as a “martyr and patron of religious freedom.”

Archbishop Saldanha said there are plans to build a monument to Bhatti in his native village of Khushpur, calling it “a permanent memorial to a brave and selfless leader, who rose to the highest office possible for a Christian.”

With the cooperation of Aid to the Church in Need, the British Pakistani Christian Association is organizing a March 10 peace rally and concert in London to commemorate the anniversary of Bhatti’s death and to call for changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Two events in Rome on March 2 also marked the anniversary.

At the Pontifical Lateran University, Bhatti biographer Francesca Milano presented her Italian-language biography of the slain Christian, “Death of a Blasphemer.”

"I discovered a man very in love with his nation, with the people of his nation, in spite of the difficulties,” Milano told CNA at the university. “Nevertheless, Shahbaz Bhatti wasn't afraid of these problems. He was a man who threw himself into confronting them. And he didn't only help Christians, he wanted to do well also for others and this was a fantastic thing.”

Bhatti was “such a phenomenal person” for the country that Pakistan’s Muslims also recognized his quality.

“It's not a question of religion, it's an operational question, a question of what he did for his nation, for the poorest, for the desperate,” she continued.

Milano cited his work to help those in need during disastrous earthquakes and floods. During one flood, Bhatti heard of a family trapped in their home. He went to their house and personally waded through mud and water to bring the children and then the parents to safety.

Bhatti’s brother Paul, now a special counselor to the Ministry for Minorities, is “carrying forward his brother’s fight,” a fact Milano called “a sign of hope.”

Prof. Mobeen Shahid, a Pontifical Lateran University professor who was a personal friend of Bhatti, said he was “martyred for his faith.

He was “faithful and coherent” in both his personal testimony and in his politics.

“It's not easy being coherent as a Christian and it's that much more difficult to do so in the political arena.”

“Unfortunately, he was killed and is no longer with us, but his beautiful words should be an example for us all so that we can always look at the Gospel and try to imitate that message in our lives,” Shahid told CNA.

The professor recounted walking the old streets of Rome’s city center with Bhatti, who said he was not interested in the distractions of Rome.

“What I'm interested in the most is how I can understand better the possible solutions to defend my Christians and how my life could be an example and how my actions can be an action of the comprehension of the cross,” Bhatti said, according to Shahid.

On the evening of March 2, the St. Egidio Community commemorated Bhatti at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew. Modern martyrs are remembered in the basilica’s side chapels.

Bhatti’s personal Bible, donated by his brother Paul, is displayed in the basilica’s Chapel of Asian Martyrs.

Luisa Santolini, president of the Italian parliamentary association Friends of Pakistan, told CNA that she remembers Bhatti “as a martyr who truly has brought fruits.”

Bhatti co-founded the association and hoped to create similar initiatives for parliaments in other nations.

“These events we have held on the anniversary demonstrate his memory,” Santolini said. “The fact that the Islamic ambassador came to remember him makes us remember that the blood of the martyrs always leaves a path to follow and we have the duty to follow this trail.”


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