.- Torn with grief over the recent assassination of Pakistani government minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian community in Pakistan declared three days of mourning for the late Catholic political leader, who was gunned down on March 2.
Peaceful protests, prayer vigils and a funeral Mass for Bhatti are slated to take place during March 4 – 6, with a public procession starting Thursday evening in Bhatti's home Diocese of Faisalabad.
A local priest told the Vatican-based Fides news agency that the demonstrations by local Christians are “a testimony of faith to gather together around the memory of this martyr, to remember his message, asking God for the strength to go on in this state of suffering, as an exiled people.”
March 4 has been declared a day of fasting and prayer, when Bhatti will be laid to rest after a funeral Mass at Our Lady of Fatima church in Islamabad. Local Archbishop Anthony Rufin will preside at the Mass.
The 42-year old Bhatti – a leading voice for religious freedom and peace in Pakistan – served as federal minister for religious minorities. He was a Catholic and the only Christian in Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari's Cabinet.
Bhatti was slain by three men on Wednesday as he left his mother's home in Islamabad by car. His usual police escort was not present because Bhatti preferred to keep a low profile while visiting his mother, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Eyewitnesses told the AP that as the vehicle left the driveway, two men pulled Bhatti out of the car while a third fired on him with an automatic weapon.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, recalled that Bhatti was the first Catholic to hold such a high position in Pakistan and that he had met with the Pope last September.
“He bore witness to his own commitment to peaceful coexistence among the religious communities of his country,” the spokesman said of Bhatti.
“Our prayers for the victim, our condemnation for this unspeakable act of violence, our closeness to Pakistani Christians who suffer hatred, are accompanied by an appeal that everyone many become aware of the urgent importance of defending both religious freedom and Christians who are subject to violence and persecution.”
Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, head of the nation’s bishops, called Bhatti’s slaying “a perfectly tragic example of the unsustainable climate of intolerance in which we live in Pakistan.”
Fr. Robert McCulloch, a Columban missionary who has been in Pakistan for 20 years, said that he believes the current climate of extremism can be linked to the country’s broken education system.
“Religious hatred is cultivated and nurtured in Pakistan's public schools” which have become “closely linked to the madrasas," he told Fides. He also said that textbooks are a major source of the growing extremism, pointing to some official texts completely exclude religious minorities and don't even consider them “part of the nation.”
Bhatti had received death threats in recent months from Islamic extremist groups angered by his opposition to the nation’s anti-blasphemy law. The law is designed to prevent any public criticism of Islam or its prophet, Muhammad.
Bhatti and other critics, including Pope Benedict XVI, say the law should be abolished because it is consistently used to harass and intimidate religious minorities, mostly Christians.