02/11/2014, 00.00
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Despite threats, Paul Bhatti to continue brother's work for peace in Pakistan

Threatened by the Taliban, the former Minister for National Harmony has renewed the message of Christian-Muslim harmony and coexistence. Almost three years after his brother Shahbaz's murder, he said that "his sacrifice» is increasingly "a seed for peace." He calls on the West and world Catholics for political and economic help to "give hope to the future."

Milan (AsiaNews) - "We are determined to continue with greater urgency the work Shahbaz began" so that his "sacrifice" may increasingly be "a seed for peace' in Pakistan and around the world," said Paul Bhatti. Through "our faith" in Jesus, "we want to send a message of harmony and coexistence to everyone, Christians and Muslims, and all the victims of a violent ideology."

Speaking to AsiaNews, the former Federal Minister for National Harmony and current head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) renewed his pledge to fight against extremism in Pakistan.

Although he is currently in Italy, he denies he left because of death threats. Still, he knows that he has become a target for the Taliban and other fundamentalists.

Indeed, the people who sent him death threats are the same who claimed responsibility for his brother's murder.

"We know we are exposed but we will continue to fight for the victims of violence and injustice," he said.

Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, was murdered on 2 March 2011, a few months after the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, was killed on 4 January.

Extremists targeted both men for their criticism of the country's blasphemy laws and for their defence of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five sentenced to death on the basis of the "black law" who has been waiting for three years to have her appeal heard.

After his brother's martyrdom, Paul Bhatti left Italy, where he had been living for many years, to return to his homeland to continue Shahbaz's work.

Until the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was defeated in parliamentary elections in May 2013, he held the position of Special Advisor to the Prime Minister for National Harmony.

In less than two years, and despite many obstacles and limitations, he succeeded in getting the release of Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl with mental problems falsely accused of blasphemy. He also promoted initiatives that focused on interfaith dialogue and reconciliation.

Reached by AsiaNews, Paul Bhatti said he would soon return to Pakistan, despite real threats to his life.

Like Rimsha Masih's lawyers, and those trying to Shahbaz's killers whose trial just started, Paul Bhatti has been threatened and attacked by the Taliban.

Still, "I plan to go back to continue my work with determination, accepting the risks and dangers," he said.

Since the PPP lost power, risks and dangers have increased. Paul Bhatti himself has lost his police escort.

"It's a difficult situation because I do not enjoy special supports or covers, both politically and economically," he explained.

"This is why I call on all Christians and on the West to be close to us. We need help to continue our work for peace and dialogue . . . following the path indicated by my brother Shahbaz."

Today, the government in Islamabad is led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and has begun ceasefire negotiations with the Taliban, who want to see the introduction of Sharia (Islamic law) across the country and the release of their "fighters", including those who murdered Taseer and Bhatti.

In his first two terms (in the 1990s), the current prime minister did very against the country's gradual "Islamisation". His worldview is in fact "similar" to that of the extremists.

By contrast, Bhatti and the APMA are working to unite Muslims and Christians, counter extremist ideology and promote harmony.

For this reason, Paul Bhatti, like his brother Shahbaz, is seen as an "infidel," a spy for the West. This idea must be fought.

"In spite of everything, we are working to promote a positive view of the country and give hope for the future," he said.

"This hope mirrors my faith and has allowed me to nurture friendly ties with Muslims, as I did over the Christmas holiday."

His final thoughts go to Shahbaz, who still is a beloved figure in many sectors and strata of Pakistani society three years after his death.

"Many today appreciate and follow in his battle for a peaceful country," Paul Bhatti said. "For example, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has repeatedly spoken about Shahbaz as a hero, saying that the next prime minister could be a Christian."

With a population of more than 180 million people (97 per cent Muslim), Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, the second largest Muslim nation after Indonesia.

About 80 per cent of Muslims are Sunni, whilst Shias are 20 per cent. Hindus are 1.85 per cent, followed by Christians (1.6 per cent) and Sikhs (0.04 per cent).

The country's ethnic and religious minorities have been the victims of violence on a regular basis, with Shia Muslims and Christians as the main target, with things getting worse.

Dozens of violent incidents have occurred in recent years, against individuals (Asia Bibi and Rimsha Masih) and entire communities, like in Gojra in 2009 or Joseph Colony in Lahore in March 2013, often perpetrated under the pretext of the country's blasphemy laws.

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