Rome (AsiaNews) - Persecuted religious minorities and communities saw in Shahbaz Bhatti a "leader willing to protect them", a "courageous and determined" politician who found in the "Christian faith" the strength to meet challenges. This is how Paul Bhatti remembers his brother, Minority Affairs minister, a Catholic, who was killed on 2 March 2011 by extremists.
A year after his death, AsiaNews has interviewed his brother who is perpetuating Shabbaz's political and spiritual legacy. As special adviser to Prime Minister Gilani on minority affairs, "I am trying to fill a void," Paul said. Initially, he took on the task with "concern" followed by awareness and determination.
Pakistan's various communities-Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc-are getting ready to honour Shabbaz's memory with Masses, a torchlight procession and prayer vigils on 2 March and with an important political and interfaith conference on 6 March, in the capital.
Here is the interview Paul Bhatti (pictured with Benedict XVI and the imam of Lahore) gave AsiaNews:
Paul Bhatti, what is Shabbaz's legacy?
My brother left a big void that I am trying to fill. People feel the lack of a leader, someone who can protect them. Minorities that they could on his protection. They knew that he would act in case of discrimination and injustice at the national and international level. He was a great presence and support. With his death, the community felt abandoned, rudderless. We have tried to pick up from where he left off to continue his mission. Personally, I am happy to do it. At the beginning, I did not think I could and I was very concerned. Now, concerns are slowly fading away and I am increasingly aware of the importance of this vocation.
A year later, is his memory still alive?
Yes. I feel it at all levels, political, social and institutional. He had a special personality. He was popular, not only among Christians but also among Muslims and Hindus. Wherever I go, people remember him fondly and sorely miss him. They talk about him as someone worthy of "honour and respect". For this reason, we have organised a series of events to honour his memory the best we can. On 2 March, Christian communities across Pakistan will celebrate Masses and prayers in the country's churches. In addition, on the morning of the anniversary, there will be a Mass, followed by a prayer on his tomb in his birthplace of Khushpur (Punjab). In the evening, there will be a torchlight procession and a prayer in Islamabad where he was killed. On 6 March, also in the capital, we have a conference with the participation of President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani, cabinet ministers, foreign diplomats and important Christian, Muslim and Hindu religious dignitaries, as well as representatives of other religious minorities. I can confirm that the Muslim community will participate actively in celebrating Shabbaz.
There is still a lot of confusion in the investigation.
We believe that this act was the work of extremists and terrorist organisations. For years, Shahbaz had been threatened by organisations that have complex structures and professional killers hired to murder, who can terrorise judges so that they will not convict them. Benazir Bhutto's assassination is also unsolved and the real culprits are still at large. The issue is very complex, but we continue to work for peace in Pakistan and the protection of the oppressed.
What memories do you have of your brother?
I will always remember his serenity and tolerance even after many disappointments and acts of discrimination, his courage and determination, his tireless desire to work and his incredible energy. More specifically, I remember that the Christian faith was a source of strength and help in his mission. He had the capacity of convincing even the more stubborn person. For this reason, we set up a foundation that bears his name and carry on his ideals.
What objectives motivate the Shababz Bhatti Foundation?
We want to fight poverty, promote education and contribute to interfaith dialogue. For these initiatives, we have the support of certain organisations and associations. A vocational school bearing his name is in the works, so is a great university that will guarantee minority students access to education. It will be an opportunity for development and high-level education.
Why is education important?
The country can advance only through education. This is one of our ideals and goals. We are trying to launch Bangladesh-style micro-credits to help Christians and other communities start up small businesses and promote self-employment. For this reason, we call upon the international community to support our initiatives and contribute to education and development, economic growth and interfaith dialogue. We want to promote for man's dignity, and are asking for help from Christians around the world.
Finally, a thought about Asia Bibi. Shabbaz died a "martyr" for defending her . . .
We are waiting for the appeal ruling. The sooner it comes, the better. In the past, we have not been able to defend her, as we would have liked because of the anti-Bibi campaign promoted by extremists who are responsible for my brother's fate. For this reason, we have tried to defuse tensions working behind the scene in order to arrive at a sentence at the best moment. Our hope is that she will be released and expect all the protection the case deserves. Without too much fanfare or show, we want to work in silence.