.- The Catholic bishops of Pakistan will consider a proposal to ask the Vatican to declare assassinated Pakistani minister Shahbaz Bhatti a martyr.
âBhatti is a man who gave his life for his crystalline faith in Jesus Christ,â Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan, who drafted the proposal, told Fides news agency. âIt 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.â
The countryâs bishopsâ conference will consider the proposal during its general assembly in Multan from March 20 to 25.
A âmartyr,â from the Greek word meaning âwitness,â is someone who dies for the faith. A declaration of martyrdom would mean a miracle would not be required for Bhattiâs 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 motherâs 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 Bhattiâs 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 Pakistanâs blasphemy law, which impose death sentences or life imprisonment for acts of disrespect for Islamâs Prophet Muhammad and the Qurâan.
In a video he recorded to be released upon his death, Bhatti stated: âI want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of âcross,â and I follow Him to the cross.â
âPray for me and for my life,â Bhatti told Fides ahead of his murder. âI 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.â
At the slain ministerâs March 4 funeral Mass, Archbishop Anthony Rufin of Islamabad said Bhatti was driven to address the âharsh realityâ facing Christians in Pakistan.
âHe 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,â he recounted. âEven service in politics, without reference to the faith, remains empty and exposed to the Evil One.â
The archbishop told Fides that Bhatti was âa man who gave his life for the faith.â
âI am sure that the Church, in her own time, may proclaim him a martyr.â
Local Catholics observed March 4 as a day of fasting and prayer. They also held a public procession in Bhattiâs home diocese of Faisalabad.
Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore reacted to the ministerâs death by saying it has robbed the countryâs Catholics and minority groups of a âgreat leaderâ and has left them in a âprecariousâ situation.
The murder has shown that extremist religious parties are gaining the upper hand over a âvery weakâ government, he explained in an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. The countryâs 2.5 million Christians are now increasingly exposed to violence and intimidation by people with a mindset centered on âan extremist form of Islam.â
âThe 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,â the archbishop said.
The slain minister was âa man of great integrity who had his opinions and stuck to them.â The archbishop doubted whether his successor would display the same courage and determination in the face of attacks on minoritiesâ rights.
âOur people are quite down. They are fearful of the future â more so than before,â Archbishop Saldanha reported. âPeople feel like second class citizens. We cannot speak out. We feel oppressed, repressed and depressed.â
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 âthe menace of extremism.â
Despite the threats, Archbishop Saldanha said Pakistanâs Catholics will endure.
âOur 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 Godâs grace.â