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.”