The 11th anniversary of the assassination of Pakistan’s former Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was marked with an online event on 2 March celebrating his life and legacy in the struggle for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Pakistan.
Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in Islamabad on 2 March 2011 after many years of campaigning for the FoRB in Pakistan. He was particularly critical of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, and had continued his advocacy despite receiving multiple death threats from Islamic extremists.
The online event was organised by CSW in partnership with the Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation (CICF), International Christian Voice and the Institute for Global Engagement. It was hosted by CSW’s Senior Analyst for East Asia Benedict Rogers and featured contributions from Fr Michael Nazir Ali, CICF President Michelle Chaudhry, CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas, Mr Bhatti’s niece Nitasha Bhatti, and Asia Bibi, who was visited by Shahbaz Bhatti while imprisoned on blasphemy charges.
CICF President Michelle Chaudhry paid tribute to one of her best friends, and described Shahbaz Bhatti’s life of activism: “It was Shahbaz’s unwavering belief in Jinnah’s Pakistan that made him dedicate 28 years of his life to strive to create the Pakistan that the father of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had envisioned – to ensure an enlightened and moderate Pakistan where every citizen could enjoy equal rights, opportunities and complete religious freedom.”
Nitasha Bhatti shared memories of Shahbaz Bhatti as the youngest of his siblings and “family favourite” who shared his love of Pakistan with his wider family: “Growing up, my uncle had his fair share of struggles as a religious minority. He had every reason to despise his country and had every opportunity to leave and be successful abroad. Yet the love that he had for his country never wavered, despite the hardships that the country threw at him. He believed in the Pakistan that was created by its founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. A Pakistan that was free for all to worship as they pleased, a Pakistan that was home to every religious minority.”
CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “When I met Shahbaz I knew I was meeting a man of God. He was a man of great courage and compassion, a man of peace and reconciliation. Above all he was a man of justice. He was a dear friend. It was a great achievement for him to become the Federal Minister for Minorities, but he never forgot the people he was representing, he was a man of the people who stood up for those who were downtrodden. I’m so thrilled that we continue to remember Shahbaz’s life and work, and I thank God that his memory lives on.”
The event also featured a panel discussion with Jan Figel, former Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion outside the EU, Knox Thames, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, Peter Bhatti, Founder and Chairman of International Christian Voice in Canada, Pakistani human rights activist Tahira Abdullah and CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas.
Video tributes about Shahbaz Bhatti included messages from, among others, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani, US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain, Peter Van Dalen MEP, the Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom Nadine Maenza, His Eminence Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Sean Fraser, and Voice of the Martyrs CEO Floyd Brobbel.