Who will stand for the weak, the powerless and the downtrodden? Who will stand against injustice but for the rights of the minorities? And who will weep for them who gave it all for others? These modern-day knights slained by the dragon of intolerance, Sacrificed on the altar of bigotry and hatred. Will you weep? Will you light a candle for them? Will we keep the light burning bright. For the poor, the downtrodden and the fallen knights. (Fallen Knights by LGS)
Two days ago, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistan Government Minister for Religious Minorities, was ambushed by three gunmen as he was on his way to attend a cabinet meeting after visiting with some poor constituents. The only Christian minister in the Pakistan Cabinet, his car was stopped by the gunmen who then opened the passenger door and sprayed the interior with bullets. The Taliban has claimed responsibility.
Just a month earlier, Salmaan Taseer, the Muslim Governor of Pakistani Punjab and a co-supporter of his views, was killed by one of his own bodyguards. Sadly, Taseer’s killer, although under arrest, has been feted by many as a hero; even by some of the police. Both Bhatti and Taseer were singled out for punishment because they were pushing for a reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, reform in the application of Syariah law and because of their support for the release of Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who is under death sentence under the Blasphemy law.
The Blasphemy Law makes it a capital offence to insult the Prophet Muhammad. Some may argue that this is against the principle of free speech but of greater concern is that Human Rights observers report that it is often invoked by one party to settle rivalries, feuds and disputes. In the case of Aasia Bibi, there was already a long standing feud between Bibi and a neighbor over some property damage. Then in June 2009, Bibi, who worked as a farm hand, was asked to fetch water for her fellow workers to drink. When she came back, some of her Muslim co-workers refused to drink claiming that being a Christian, she had made the water “unclean”. Some arguments ensue. Later a mob descended on her home and started beating her and her family. The police came to her rescue but after listening to the villagers, arrested and charged her under the Blasphemy Law. Bhatti and Taseer believed that the law had been misused to settle a score. Taseer had indicated that as Governor, he would likely pardon Bibi. Then he was assassinated.
Bhatti knew that he was a target. In fact, after Taseer’s assassination, he considered himself to be “the highest target right now”. Some of the country’s religious leaders had even publicly called for his death. He insisted on keeping to his work schedule and refused bodyguards, noting that it had done Taseer no good.
“I’m not talking about special security arrangements. We need to stand against these forces of terrorism because they’re terrorising the country. I cannot trust on security…. I believe that protection can come only from heaven, so these bodyguards can’t save you.” Bhatti said at the time.“
When informed by security officers that there was a plot to assassinate him, he did ask for a bulletproof car but strangely, he was never given one. He must have felt increasingly alone and exposed. He even made a video recording with instructions that it be sent to the BBC if he should be killed. He made a telephone call to a BBC correspondent before his death saying, ” They say there’s a terrorist plot to assassinate me. They’ve told me to be careful, but didn’t tell me anything else. I haven’t been given any extra security. It’s just the same as it has been since I became a minister. I have struggled for a long time for justice and equality. If I change my stance today, who will speak out? I am mindful that I can be assassinated any time, but I want to live in history as a courageous man.”
And so he gave his life for the cause of others. (“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13). Join me in remembering these brave men of principle and humanity, Shahbaz Bhatti and Saleem Taseer. One a Christian and another a Muslim, but both united in serving for the greater good of their community and especially for the disenfranchised and oppressed. Join me also in praying for their family and loved ones in this time of loss.
Post Script: Unfortunately, the move to reform the Blasphemy Laws seems to have been mortally wounded by Bhatti’s death. The government has reintegrated on the promise to push for reform. Without party support, member of parliament, Sherry Rehman, had to drop her reform bill and now she has had to disappeared from view due to concerns for her safety.