Islamabad (AsiaNews) - Pakistani Christians, but also Muslims, Hindus and other minorities are appealing to Pope Benedict XVI to make "Shahbaz Bhatti, a martyr of the Church". They did so at ceremonies marking the first anniversary of the Catholic minister assassinated on 2 March 2011. Masses and prayer vigils were held in Faisalabad, his birthplace of Khushpur (Punjab), Lahore, Multan, Karachi and other locations.
In the capital, Islamabad, where Bhatti was killed by extremists, a final ceremony was held with a torchlight procession (pictured) passing by his home, scene of the deadly ambush.
During the ceremony, a group of activists handed Paul Bhatti, Shahbaz's brother and national harmony adviser to Prime Minister Gilani, a flag of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), an organisation founded by the slain minister, to encourage him to continue the fight for equality of rights for all citizens.
Shahbaz Bhatti was killed in the morning of 2 March 2011 on his way to work, his body riddled with some 30 bullets.
For months, the authorities tried to cover up the affair, blaming the murder on a family dispute and later, on financial matters.
So far, it is unclear who carried out the attacks, but the murder was immediately claimed by an extremist Pakistani faction. Police acknowledge that they are still in the dark.
Still, many in Pakistan want to keep Shahbaz Bhatti's memory alive, by promoting his political-cultural testament in favour of a secular and multicultural Pakistan as the Father of the Nation, Ali Jinnah, had envisaged it.
Mons. Joseph Coutts, archbishop of Karachi and a personal friend of Shahbaz Bhatti, celebrated the memorial Mass. In his homily, the prelate said, "Shahbaz Bhatti is alive in our memories for his mission and sacrifice in the name of Christianity. He was the ambassador of peace, love, and quality and brotherhood, and we will continue our struggle in his footsteps."
Fr Anjum Nazir praised Shahbaz's unwavering faith. Indeed, "He always had a Rosary with him that showed his bonding with the faith."
Interpreting the wishes of Pakistan's Christian community, Fr Pervez Emmanuel appealed "to the pope to declare Shahbaz Bhatti a Martyr of the Church".
The Minority Affairs minister was killed for his fight against the country's blasphemy legislation and for defending Asia Bibi, the 45-year-old mother of five sentenced to death on charges stemming from the 'black law'.
Fr Pervaiz, parish priest in predominantly Catholic Khushpur, spoke about the upcoming Senate elections, where for the first time and thanks to the late minister's efforts, four seats will be assigned to minority representatives. "This is the result of Shahbaz's work," he said.
"Shahbaz Bhatti lived his life as a true follower of Jesus Christ," said P. Anwar Patras. "He knew he would be assassinated but stood firm for the voiceless and the marginalised communities."