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Pakistan minorities doubt 'equal' rights

The assassination of Catholic federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti was no surprise

Kamran Chaudhry Kamran Chaudhry
  • Kamran Chaudhry, Lahore
  • Pakistan
  • March 4, 2011
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The assassination of Catholic federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti was no surprise.

The second major political assassination this year bore very similar hallmarks to the first which saw the death of Punjab governor Salman Taseer two months ago. Both politicians openly opposed the controversial blasphemy laws. Both were murdered in the capital Islamabad in broad daylight.

Bhatti will be laid to rest today in Khushpur, the largest Catholic village in Punjab province. The village first gained notoriety in 1998 after Catholic Bishop John Joseph committed suicide to protest the blasphemy law.

But nothing has changed for minority Christians after more than a decade.

“We have wasted many chances. Thousands of clerics have been invited for inter faith seminars, but in times of crises they all share the same stance. We have to think out of the box now”, said a senior official of the Catholic Bishop’s National Commission for Justice and Peace at a recent high profile meeting of Church leaders.

Christians can coexist peacefully with the majority and live their life according to their faith in Pakistan “as long as” they do not interfere with the blasphemy laws. Any attempt to amend these legislations means only one thing – death. It does not matter whether you are a common citizen or a governor or a federal minister.

No earthly logic can convince religious zealots. Banners, graffiti and posters along roads across the country reaffirm this fact. Giant portraits of Taseer’s alleged killer are still displayed at major intersections in Lahore the Punjab capital. Although the prime minster condemned this most recent murder on the floor of the House, he once again avoided blaming religious extremists for the killing.

The government is not alone in backtracking. Reluctance to address the blasphemy laws in the media is now haunting the Catholic Church. “We cannot condemn these laws directly. Even if they are amended, the prevalent mind set will dominate for generations. We need to find another way of voicing our reactions”, a bishop told me on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, Christians are looking to the Church leadership with mixed feelings of revenge and despair. Church leaders are trying their best to keep protests non-violent especially since Bhatti’s murder.

Condemnation from the Vatican has brought some leverage, but the dynamics are taking things further ahead. The outlook is becoming bloody as the political leadership is failing to protect its people and their representatives.

The Church needs an implementation body and an official to coordinate adequate responses amid ongoing violence. Though not conceived originally for such crises, the Church can generate human resources and generate funds for this purpose.

As far as the ruling party goes, it has already lost some of its leading liberal members (including former leader Benazir Bhutto) to extremists. Dealing with hardliners with an iron fist can help prevent further damage. Alienating those who speak out against tyranny will only bring anarchy.

PA13507.1643

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