The Catholic bishops of Pakistan will consider a proposal to ask the Vatican to declare assassinated Pakistani minister Shahbaz Bhatti a martyr.
“Bhatti is a man who gave his life for his crystalline faith in Jesus Christ,” Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan, who drafted the proposal, told Fides news agency. “It is up to us, the Bishops, to tell his story and experience to the Church in Rome, to call for official recognition of his martyrdom.”
The country’s bishops’ conference will consider the proposal during its general assembly in Multan from March 20 to 25.
A “martyr,” from the Greek word meaning “witness,” is someone who dies for the faith. A declaration of martyrdom would mean a miracle would not be required for Bhatti’s possible beatification, although to be canonized as a saint a miracle would be required.
Masked men murdered Bhatti, the minister for religious minorities, on the streets of Islamabad as he left his mother’s home for a cabinet meeting on March 2. He was a leading voice for religious freedom and peace and the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet.
Al-Qaida and the Punjab-based Pakistani Taliban Movement claimed responsibility for Bhatti’s killing, according to the AP.
His murder was especially momentous coming after the Jan. 4 assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer. Both men were critics of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which impose death sentences or life imprisonment for acts of disrespect for Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an.
In a video he recorded to be released upon his death, Bhatti stated: “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.”
“Pray for me and for my life,” Bhatti told Fides ahead of his murder. “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.”
At the slain minister’s March 4 funeral Mass, Archbishop Anthony Rufin of Islamabad said Bhatti was driven to address the “harsh reality” facing Christians in Pakistan.
“He always asked me to pray for him, because he was aware that the work in the world, without help from above, is incomplete and cannot bear fruit,” he recounted. “Even service in politics, without reference to the faith, remains empty and exposed to the Evil One.”
The archbishop told Fides that Bhatti was “a man who gave his life for the faith.”
“I am sure that the Church, in her own time, may proclaim him a martyr.”
Local Catholics observed March 4 as a day of fasting and prayer. They also held a public procession in Bhatti’s home diocese of Faisalabad.
Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore reacted to the minister’s death by saying it has robbed the country’s Catholics and minority groups of a “great leader” and has left them in a “precarious” situation.
The murder has shown that extremist religious parties are gaining the upper hand over a “very weak” government, he explained in an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. The country’s 2.5 million Christians are now increasingly exposed to violence and intimidation by people with a mindset centered on “an extremist form of Islam.”
“The murder of Shahbaz Bhatti means that we have lost a great leader of our community who stood up for us and articulated the concerns and fears of our people. We do not have a leader now,” the archbishop said.
The slain minister was “a man of great integrity who had his opinions and stuck to them.” The archbishop doubted whether his successor would display the same courage and determination in the face of attacks on minorities’ rights.
“Our people are quite down. They are fearful of the future – more so than before,” Archbishop Saldanha reported. “People feel like second class citizens. We cannot speak out. We feel oppressed, repressed and depressed.”
Security has been increased for Christian buildings. Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore is under police guard with cameras, cement barriers, and sandbags. Perimeter walls have been raised by three feet.
The archbishop accused the government of failing to tackle fundamentalism. The religious parties have put much pressure on the government, which is weak and cannot stand against “the menace of extremism.”
Despite the threats, Archbishop Saldanha said Pakistan’s Catholics will endure.
“Our people are very resilient and determined. For centuries, they have been suffering. This is nothing new for them. They have always been under the thumb. We carry on with God’s grace.”