Islamabad (AsiaNews) – Speaking to AsiaNews, Paul Bhatti, the prime minister’s special advisor on minority affairs, described what he wants to achieve and the principles that will guide his work. His goals include long-term “targeted surgical interventions” to strengthen education and eliminate the “causes of fundamentalism” whilst guaranteeing “minorities and the whole community real change.” Working closely with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, he is responsible for formulating and implementing government policy on minority issues. Mian Riaz Hussain Pirzada, a Muslim lawmaker elected with the PML-Q, is the new federal Minority Affairs minister in replacement of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Catholic minister slain on 2 March.
Pirzada’s appointment was made as part of a broader cabinet shuffle in the government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The changes include the arrival of PML-Q members and bring to an end the controversy over the ministry’s fate. Contrary to prior suggestions, the federal government will continue to administer Minorities Affairs.
In early April, AsiaNews had reported that the issue had become entangled with political games (see “Political games and devolution behind uncertainties over Minority Affairs Ministry, 7 April 2011), which now seem over. On 2 May, Mian Riaz Hussain Pirzada, and 14 new PML-Q federal and provincial ministers took their oath of office in front of President Zardari.
In his first weeks as special advisor, Paul Bhatti, Shahbaz Bhatti’s brother, held a number of “meetings on interfaith dialogue” with various parties. His aim is to make those who kill in the name of Islam understand that the Muslim faith “does not admit such initiatives” and to stress the “importance of mutual respect and coexistence” through joint actions that include meetings, targeted projects, cooperation between foundations and other organisations. In addition to this “first step”, education must be strengthened because “discrimination is less important among the middle classes given their higher levels of education.”
“My task is to continue my brother’s work,” Bhatti said. Like Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, Shabbaz Bhatti was killed by extremists for his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law and for his support for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman currently on death row.
“We want to promote small but long-term targeted surgical interventions to achieve radical change,” said Paul Bhatti, a physician who has worked for many years in Italy.
Street demonstrations or changes to the “black law” are not necessary. “The causes of extremism” must be eliminated, he said, but “the law can stay. If people are honest and peaceful, it cannot lead to abuses”.
As special advisor, he will be fully autonomous from federal Minority Affairs Minister Mian Riaz Hussain Pirzada, whose role will be administrative.
The country is going “through a crisis that transcends the issue of a ministerial appointment,” a source with intimate knowledge of Pakistani politics, told AsiaNews, because “the whole political system is threatened”.
The electorate is “still divided along religious lines” and focus on the religious aspects of state affairs “inevitably stirs up religious extremism. For this reason, the appointment of a Muslim as Minority Affairs minister should not be controversial if he shows some “flexibility and concern” for issues that matter to non-Muslims.
Born in 1948, Mian Riaz Hussain Pirzada is originally from Punjab. A lawyer by training, he is in his second mandate in parliament. Married with seven children, including six girls, he is an expert in human rights, environment and terrorism.
Speaking to AsiaNews, the PML-Q lawmaker said that he has “strong ties to minorities and Christians” whose tragic circumstances he has followed, “like the attack against Gojra” in August 2009 when an extremist mob stormed a village, killing seven people.
He said he would work with Paul Bhatti. He also plans to promote “changes” to the blasphemy law, “but my party will decide what to do in the matter”. Nevertheless, the goal is “provide all minorities with security, including the Christian minority.” (DS)
(Jibran Khan contributed to the article)