03/01/2012, 00.00
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Muslims and Christians remember minority 'leader' Shahbaz Bhatti

by Jibran Khan - Shafique Khokhar
For religious and civil society leaders, the late Catholic minister is an example to follow in interfaith dialogue. For the bishop of Islamabad, he was "a brave and faithful man". A human rights activist says that his death leaves a leadership vacuum. His "sacrifice will not be in vain," Muslim scholar states.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) - Catholic public figures, Christian leaders, Muslim scholars and human rights activists are remembering Shahbaz Bhatti a year after his death. A group of armed extremists gunned down the Minority Affairs minister, a Catholic, on the morning of 2 March 2011, leaving his body riddled with bullets. Since then, investigators have tried several times to cover up the affair, blaming it on family squabbles or financial disputes. However, his memory lives on in civil society as others promote his work, ideals and political-cultural testament in favour a secular and multicultural Pakistan. "I am ready to die for a cause," he said in a video that was posted on the Internet. "I am living for my community [. . .] and I will die to defend their rights," choosing death "for my principles". These words encapsulate the sense of the work he passed on, a spiritual testament to inspire others who today remember him with admiration and affection as an example to follow.

Many moderate Muslim leaders and imams value Shahbaz's work and share his legacy. Maulana Mehfooz Khan, imam in Lahore and a member of the Islamic Ideology Council, is one of them. Over the years, he developed a close relationship with the slain minister based on friendship and respect. For him, Shahbaz Bhatti was "an ambassador of interfaith harmony. His services for the minorities of Pakistan are highly appreciated. He stood firm for what he believed in" and "his sacrifice will not go in vain, he will be remembered as a voice for the voiceless."

Another Muslim activist, Iftikhar Ahmad, agrees. The district coordinator of SPARK (Child Right Committee) in Faisalabad said, "I worked a lot with Shahbaz Bhatti against the blasphemy laws, Hudood Ordinance and the Shariah Bill." The minister's assassination was clearly connected with "extremism and I am pained that our independent courts have released the culprit of his murder".

"Unfortunately, our state is not taking adequate steps against the extremism that caused the brutal assassination and extra-judicial killing of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer. I salute Shahbaz Bhatti's tireless and courageous efforts. He was not only a leader of minorities but a true human rights defender too".

Among Pakistan's Catholic public figures, Shahbaz was particular close to Mgr Rufin Anthony, bishop of Islamabad, who could count him as a close friend. His death represents the "tragic loss of a brave and faithful man." In his view, the memory of the "noble witness" has not faded a year after his murder.

"I knew him since the 1980s as he went to a school in Khushpur, his village in Faisalabad District," the prelate said. "He was always ready to work for the nation".

Together, "we founded Christian Liberation Front," but "He had a passion for minorities and fought for their rights. I met him a couple of weeks before his assassination. He surely saw it coming;" yet, he "was steadfast-such an inspiration to all who profess the Christian faith. . . ."

Khalid Gill a senior APMA (All Pakistan Minority Alliance) member also remembers him. "Shahbaz Bhatti was a brave leader; it was an honour working under his leadership."

"Shahbaz Bhatti's assassination was a great blow to Pakistan; the more shocking because of the lukewarm attitude of the great majority, including intellectuals, liberals and members of civil society" who did not come out to protest against his death.

For Punjab Provincial Assembly Member and APMA member Pervaiz Rafique, the Catholic minister's vision of a Pakistan was that of a country "where religious minorities would be able to exercise equal rights." He worked tirelessly for a just and tolerant society.

Michelle Chaudhry, a social activist from Lahore, had known Bhatti "for 28 years" because her father had been "his mentor". His death has left a leadership vacuum and Christians are in "serious need of unity" to protect their rights. "He was selfless, always concerned for others." His family "is still waiting for justice" from the government.

For Peter Jacob, executive Director of National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), the Catholic minister's legacy must be promoted. He held a "brave posture against threats". His life recalls the "martyrdom inherent in the Christian witness" like that of "his mentor, Bishop John Joseph, 12 years ago".   

Fr Aftab James Paul, director of the Diocesan Commission for Interfaith Dialogue in Faisalabad, recalls Shahbaz, the martyr," as a "symbol of the struggle for the rights of the downtrodden," a man following in the footsteps of "Jesus who sacrificed his life".

Finally, activist and poet Syed Najeeb Ali Shah, pays tribute on behalf of his fellow "poets, writers and educators" for his "struggle in favour of democracy and secularism on the first anniversary of his death."

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