A Lesson of Holiness from Remote Pakistan

The martyrdom of Shahbaz Bhatti, minister of religious minorities. “Until the last breath, I will continue to serve Jesus and this poor, suffering humanity.” His spiritual testament published by “La Civiltà Cattolica”

by Sandro Magister


ROME, April 14, 2011 – For the Catholics of Pakistan, he is “the martyr.” His name is Shahbaz Bhatti. He was killed last March 2 by Islamic terrorists because he was “Christian, an infidel and a blasphemer.” He was the minister for religious minorities.

One month later, at the end of the general audience on Wednesday, April 6, Benedict XVI received his brother, Paul Bhatti, a doctor who lived in Italy for many years but returned to his country precisely in order to continue his brother’s mission, and has been appointed a special adviser on religious minorities to the prime minister of Pakistan.

With Paul, the pope also met the grand imam of Lahore, Khabior Azad, a personal friend of Shahbaz.

The Bible that Shahbaz always had with him is now in Rome in the memorial for the martyrs of the past century, in the basilica of Saint Bartholomew on the Isola Tiberina.

One of the most informative and concerned articles on what his murder has meant in Pakistan and in the whole world is without a doubt the one published in “La Civiltà Cattolica” dated April 2, 2011.

An article that is all the more significant given that this magazine of the Rome Jesuits is printed after inspection and authorization by the Vatican secretariat of state. So it reflects the thinking of the Holy See in this regard.

In Pakistan, out of a population of 185 million inhabitants, Christians are 2 percent, one million of them Catholic. But among the Muslims as well there are minorities in danger: Shiites, Sufis, Ismaili, Ahmadis.

The law against blasphemy is a weapon used against the minorities. It was introduced by the English in 1927, and kept in effect in 1947, after Pakistan’s independence and separation from India. But beginning in 1977, after the military coup by Zia-ul-Haq, Islamization has been increasing and the law against blasphemy – brought back into vogue with a vengeance – has been joined by other norms based on sharia. For example, four witnesses are required to prove a charge of rape on a woman, who is otherwise considered an adulterer. Or, another example, a Muslim who rapes a Christian, if he forces her to marry him and convert to Islam, can no longer be prosecuted for rape.

For blaspheming Mohammed, the death penalty has been introduced, and for profanation of the Qur’an, a life sentence. The Justice and Peace commission of the Catholic bishops of Pakistan has estimated that from 1987 to 2009, 1,032 persons have been unjustly punished using the law against blasphemy.

One of these is Asia Bibi a 45-year-old mother of five, sentenced to hanging in November of 2010 and currently awaiting an appeal ruling. She was accused by other women of her village who were working with her in the fields when a quarrel broke out over the use of water. Even if she is exonerated or pardoned, Asia will not feel safe, because various Muslim figures have made death threats against her.

A new case defined by the Pakistani bishops as “abuse of the law against blasphemy for personal revenge” has in recent days hit another Christian, Arif Masih, in the village Chak Jhumra.

A day of prayer for Asia Bibi, Arif Masih and all the other persons arrested for the same accusation will be celebrated on April 20, Wednesday of Holy Week, in Pakistan and other countries. In Rome, in the chapel of the Italian parliament, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran will celebrate a Mass that will also be in memory of Shahbaz Bhatti.

Charges of blasphemy are based on the word of the accuser, who, however, must not report the precise content of the offense in order to avoid being charged with the same crime. The judges, in turn, are afraid of being killed, as has happened on occasion, if they exonerate a defendant. So they often tend to delay the verdict, but without granting bail. Moreover, as a general rule, a non-Muslim in court must have a Muslim attorney and judge.

This and other information is reported in the notes to the article from “La Civiltà Cattolica.”

Here it is almost in its entirety, by gracious permission of the magazine.



by Luciano Larivera, S.J.

[…] There is a state, Pakistan, whose nuclear arsenal continues to grow. But whose  political stability is threatened every day, and in a systematic way, by ethnic and religious violence and hatred. Its tragic example is the warning, for other Islamic countries, of how the virus of religious intolerance can get out of control and gradually lead a democracy to collapse. […] This is why we cannot forget a heroic and generous Pakistani politician, Shahbaz Bhatti. A humble and serious Christian.


“My name is Shahbaz Bhatti. I was born into a Catholic family. My father, a retired teacher, and my mother, a housewife, raised me according to Christian values and the teachings of the Bible, which influenced my childhood. Since I was a child, I was accustomed to going to church and finding profound inspiration in the teachings, the sacrifice, and the crucifixion of Jesus. It was his love that led me to offer my service to the Church. The frightening conditions into which the Christians of Pakistan had fallen disturbed me. I remember one Good Friday when I was just thirteen years old: I heard a homily on the sacrifice of Jesus for our redemption and for the salvation of the world. And I thought of responding to his love by giving love to my brothers and sisters, placing myself at the service of Christians, especially of the poor, the needy, and the persecuted who live in this Islamic country.

“I have been asked to put an end to my battle, but I have always refused, even at the risk of my own life. My response has always been the same. I do not want popularity, I do not want positions of power. I only want a place at the feet of Jesus. I want my life, my character, my actions to speak of me and say that I am following Jesus Christ. This desire is so strong in me that I consider myself privileged whenever – in my combative effort to help the needy, the poor, the persecuted Christians of Pakistan – Jesus should wish to accept the sacrifice of my life. I want to live for Christ and it is for Him that I want to die. I do not feel any fear in this country. Many times the extremists have wanted to kill me, imprison me; they have threatened me, persecuted me, and terrorized my family.

“I say that, as long as I am alive, until the last breath, I will continue to serve Jesus and this poor, suffering humanity, the Christians, the needy, the poor. I believe that the Christians of the world who have reached out to the Muslims hit by the tragedy of the earthquake of 2005 have built bridges of solidarity, of love, of comprehension, and of tolerance between the two religions. If these efforts continue, I am convinced that we will succeed in winning the hearts and minds of the extremists. This will produce a change for the better: the people will not hate, will not kill in the name of religion, but will love each other, will bring harmony, will cultivate peace and comprehension in this region.

“I believe that the needy, the poor, the orphans, whatever their religion, must be considered above all as human beings. I think that these persons are part of my body in Christ, that they are the persecuted and needy part of the body of Christ. If we bring this mission to its conclusion, then we will have won a place at the feet of Jesus, and I will be able to look at him without feeling shame.”

This is the spiritual testament of Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister of religious minorities in Pakistan, born on September 9, 1968 and assassinated last March 2 by an extremist brigade in the capital of Islamabad. He was a member of the main governing party, the PPP, the Pakistan Peoples Party. A few weeks earlier, he had asked: “Pray for me. I am a man who has burned his ships behind him: I cannot and I do not want to turn back in this effort. I will combat extremism and I will fight in defense of the Christians to the death.” Bhatti lived with his mother and other relatives. He had decided not to get married in order to consecrate himself to his mission. He did not choose the priesthood “because he wanted to be among the people, in direct contact with persons and their difficulties, something that priests are often unable to do in his country.”

On March 2, the minister was with his driver and a nephew in an official vehicle, which had not been armored in spite of requests. The terrorist brigade dragged Bhatti out of the car and massacred him with 30 gunshots. The assassination is to be attributed to the Pakistani Taliban of Punjab. They worked without interference, and left at the scene of the crime some fliers signed Tehrik-e-Taliban-Punjab. The minister had not wanted an escort, mindful that his friend and fellow party member Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab and a Muslim, had been killed precisely by a member of his escort, without his other bodyguards intervening. This had taken place two months earlier, on January 4. And his assassin has been turned into a hero, with lawyers competing to defend him free of charge.


Taseer and Bhatti were pursuing the ideal of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, of a country where, with respect to the Sunni Muslims, the religious minorities (Shiites, Sufi Muslims, Isma’ili, Ahmadis, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Baha’i . . .) enjoy equal rights. Both have been “punished” for having fought for the abolition or at least the reform of the law on blasphemy, the root of the problem for Pakistani Christians. Extremist voices are asking that any request to modify the “black law” be considered blasphemy. Such a law seems untouchable. And it is exploited, especially in the more populous Punjab, to settle personal disputes even among Muslims. There is impunity for those who have it applied in an extrajudicial form. But as observed recently by the director of the Vatican press office, Fr. Federico Lombardi, this law “in itself is truly blasphemous, because in the name of God it is a cause of injustice and death.” […] Bhatti wanted to keep alive the commission for the revision of the law on blasphemy, backed by President Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, and present in its electoral platform for the vote on November 6, 2008.

A further fault of the Muslim governor and of the Catholic minister was that of having called for the liberation of Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five, sentenced to death by hanging in November of 2010 for having offended the Prophet Mohammed, but awaiting an appeal ruling. Bhatti did not feed the media fire over the Asia Bibi case, to avoid reigniting the fundamentalist reaction. And, in general, Catholics distance themselves from initiatives that tend to create conflict with Pakistani institutions. In spite of this, on the occasion of March 8, International Women’s Day, the Pakistani Catholic Church and Indian Christians launched the latest in a series of appeals for the liberation of Asia Bibi, who is in danger of being killed in prison. Moreover, they affirmed that this woman symbolizes all the others who are behind bars or in apparent freedom, oppressed by disparity, intolerance and violence because of their sex or the faith they profess.

After the state funeral in the capital, the “martyr” Bhatti was buried, in the presence of 10,000 people of every creed, in Khushpur near Faisalabad, in Punjab. The minister spent his childhood in this Catholic village founded by the Dominicans. With the latest reshuffling of the government, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of the PPP had confirmed Bhatti’s position, in part because of insistence from the West, in spite of the slashing of ministers from 60 to 22 to contain public spending and pressure from Islamic coalition parties to eliminate that agency. Bhatti was, moreover, the only non-Muslim in the federal government of Pakistan.


Benedict XVI, last September, had met him in his capacity as minister; and, in his speech to the diplomatic corps on January 10, the pontiff had mentioned the law against blasphemy in Pakistan, encouraging “once more the leaders of that country to take the necessary steps to abrogate the law.” He had also paid homage to the courageous sacrifice of Governor Taseer. But some Pakistanis do not intend to listen to the pope’s words. Religious parties in particular consider the statements of Benedict XVI a form of interference in domestic politics. The fundamentalists control the minds of their followers, fomenting hatred and violence. And yet Christians have good relationships with the majority of Muslims. After the Angelus last March 6, the pope issued this appeal and further gestures to comfort the Pakistani Catholics traumatized by the murder: “I ask the Lord Jesus that the touching sacrifice of Pakistani minister Shahbaz Bhatti’s life may awaken in consciences the courage and commitment to protect the religious freedom of all men and, in this way, to promote their equal dignity.”

A huge banner with Bhatti’s image and name has been hanging outside of the Italian foreign ministry since March 5, to commemorate the man and affirm the commitment of Italian diplomacy in defense of religious freedom in the world. Foreign minister Franco Frattini, interviewed by “Avvenire” on March 3, referred to a confidential conversation with Bhatti in his modest office in Islamabad last November: “He told me that his adversaries were trying to take funding away from the ministry for religious minorities, a way to reduce it to insignificance and, then, to closure. And he asked me to help him make his work known in the international community, because only in this way could he save his ministry.” Frattini then added: “Now the cowards of that Europe which flees from the condemnation of religious fundamentalism will shed their crocodile tears, allies of those cowards in Pakistan who know only the blood of attacks […] I am thinking of those in Europe who are very attentive to the ‘politically correct’, to the point of never using, in official documents, the words ‘persecuted Christians’. I see this as o form of political cowardice which today, in the face of a new martyr, is even more scandalous.” […]


Confronted with this terrorist crime, the Pakistani bishops immediately declared and confirmed that “this is a perfectly tragic example of the unsustainable climate of intolerance in which we live in Pakistan. We call on the government, the institutions, the whole country to recognise and take decisions about these issues, because there must be an end to this situation, where violence prevails.” They also sent a request to the Holy See that Bhatti be proclaimed a martyr, killed “in odium fidei.” The imam of the Badshahi mosque in Lahore himself, Khabior Mohammad Azad, shaken by the death of his “good friend” Bhatti, charged that “the people no longer have the right to express their opinions” and that “those who have claimed responsibility for the assassination are not Muslims, nor human beings,” because “Islam is a religion of peace, which teaches respect for minorities.”

Unfortunately, murders motivated by religion are advocated publicly by Islamic extremists as acts that are pleasing to God and guarantee immediate salvation. But the Pakistani state is not able to prevent and punish violence against the minorities. On the contrary, religious hatred is even fostered in Pakistan’s public schools. The official tests exclude references to the religious minorities, not considered part of the nation. In addition to distorted teaching, there are preachers in the mosques, on television and on the internet who proclaim the list of enemies to be struck down, and so feed the “culture” of religious intolerance. On the roster now is member of parliament Sherry Rehman, who in 2010 had proposed a modification of the law on blasphemy, without receiving the support of her party, the PPP, which forced her to withdraw the initiative. She lives in semi-seclusion and receives constant death threats. For others, the only alternative is to seek asylum abroad.

In addition to the Christians, in Pakistan, discrimination against the Ahmadis is legal because they are considered heretical non-Muslims, and for this reason they boycott the elections. There are tensions between the two Sunni schools of the Deobandi and the Barelvi. And the religious violence is systematic, and can hit anyone. So, for example, on March 4 ten Sufi Muslims, considered heretics by other Muslims, were killed in the area of one of their sacred places near Peshawar. But the street demonstrations of the minorities or of moderate Muslims don’t scare anyone, and their voices are lost, while they are also exposed to suicide attacks. On March 5 a Muslim, Mohammad Imran, was murdered in a village near Rawalpindi. He had been released from prison because of lack of proof that he had offended Mohammed. On March 15 Qamar David, a Christian unjustly given a life sentence for blasphemy, was killed in prison. He had been beaten and mistreated by the prison guards. And his death, from cardiac arrest, raises many doubts among the Christians. Human rights activists also fall victim to the extremists, like Naeem Sabir, killed in the province of Balochistan last March 1.


Pakistan suffers from countless ethnic and political divisions. The climate of intolerance is fed by the murderous extremists and by radical religious leaders, but also by lawyers, journalists, politicians, for their hegemonic ends. Separatist movements are still active in Balochistan, in part because the distribution of wealth is very unequal in the territory of Pakistan. The Pashtun ethnic group, while it does not seek secession and annexation with a part of Afghan territory, is increasingly dominated by fundamentalist and anti-government ideology. Then there are the tensions with India over Kashmir. There is also irritation toward the pro-Indian government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. With Beijing, Islamabad’s closest ally in the anti-India sense, cooperation has been reinforced with the building of nuclear power plants. Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, however, is increasingly difficult. And anti-American sentiment is widespread in part because, in Pakistani territory, the activity of the CIA is partially independent from the national authorities, and attacks continue by American drones against Afghan Taliban and members of al-Qaeda in western Pakistan.

Moreover, the religious extremists have infiltrated the armed forces and the secret service, which support the Afghan Taliban but are in conflict with part of the Pakistani Taliban, coordinated in turn with the jihadists who are fighting for the annexation of Indian Kashmir into Pakistan. The constellation of extremist groups is broad and nebulous. Behind the screen of educational and charitable activities, their recruitment is reinforced in the madrassas, the Qur’anic schools, and in the camps for Afghan refugees or for those who were displaced after the flooding of last summer. Moreover, the armed forces have a strong veto power over the government; but they do not seem disposed to a state coup, perhaps of Islamist inspiration, because the solution of the country’s social and economic problems is out of their reach, and the commanders don’t want to risk unpopularity. Unfortunately, the government and the judiciary often seem to have capitulated in the face of interference by the extremists and by the Pakistani secret service. The anti-blasphemy law, in its various applications, justifies political terror and discourages the Pakistani liberals. The moderate Muslims are crushed by the authority of the armed forces, by religious fanaticism, and by the interference of foreign countries when they favor corruption, abuse of power, and crimes against human rights, like torture. So social claims are becoming the prerogative of the fundamentalists, but they do not have the cultural, technological, and bureaucratic tools to resolve the country’s problems of chronic economic underdevelopment.

Intimidation and the impunity of extremist violence and of military retaliation are the hinges upon which Pakistan’s chaos hangs. The fragile national identity itself would be in danger of evaporating if these two practices were to guide the material constitution of the country. Moreover, although this is unlikely, one cannot rule out that the growing anarchy in Pakistan might permit jihadist groups to acquire nuclear material and weapons, not all of which seems to be accounted for by the United States. Pakistan is the most appetizing morsel for al-Qaeda, which is ideologically fostering domestic extremism, stating that the civil government of Islamabad is illegitimate because it is irreligious, and should be destroyed. Thus, unfortunately, the executive and the PPP seem to be hostages of the fundamentalist parties and the extremists.


Nonetheless Paul Bhatti, the murdered man’s brother, has been appointed the prime minister’s special advisor for religious minorities. If in the “Land of the pure” is to arrive what remains of the Arab “democratic spring,” the new Pakistani social pact, to block the spiral of self-destruction, requires the rapid reestablishment of a functioning criminal judicial system. This necessarily includes the radical reform of the anti-blasphemy law, which justifies the extrajudicial use of violence, including against those who convert from Islam. In the medium to long term, it is indispensable to have a public educational system that is universal and open to a more modern education, partly to build valid occupational skills. New ideas of justice and accurate reconstructions of the country’s history can capitalize on the richness of the multiform Pakistani people. This requires that public spending not be drained in a disproportional way by military spending, and that peace with India and in Afghanistan be seen as necessary for the sustainable development of Pakistan. What is underway in the country is not a religious but a political conflict, with the risk of civil war. And interreligious dialogue is impotent when one religion is used as an instrument of power, of oppression, and of underdevelopment.


The magazine from which the article was taken, printed after inspection and authorization by the Vatican secretariat of state:

> La Civiltà Cattolica


Khushpur, the birthplace of Shahbaz Bhatti, in the fertile plains of Pubjab, was founded by Catholic missionaries a century ago, and almost all of its 5,000 inhabitants are baptized.

The village is clean, industrious, welcoming. Its schools have good attendance. There is equality between men and women. Fr. Piero Gheddo of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, who has visited it, describes it in an article for “Tempi” as “a concrete and highly visible example of the difference that passes between Christianity and Islam”:

> Ecco perché i cristiani in Pakistan danno fastidio


A book-interview with Shahbaz Bhatti was published in Italy in 2008 by Marcianum Press, the publisher of the patriarchate of Venice:

Shahbaz Bhatti, “Cristiani in Pakistan. Nelle prove la speranza”, Marcianum Press, Venezia, 2008.


The entry on Pakistan from the International Religious Freedom Report produced by the United States department of state:

> Pakistan


Benedetto XVI’s catechesis on uncanonized saints, on “ordinary” saints, whose “everyday goodness” is, however, “the most sure apologia of Christianity and the sign of where the truth is”:

> General audience, wednesday, April 13, 2011


English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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