Words are not enough

  • March 9, 2011

Shahbaz Bhatti predicted his murder. In Ottawa last month, Pakistan’s minister of minorities explained to Jason Kenney that he never married because it would be unfair to leave behind a widow and children. He told our correspondent Deborah Gyapong of death threats and said he was ready to die for his beliefs.

“I was struck by how resigned he was about his expected martyrdom,” Kenney would later say.

Bhatti was ambushed March 2 as he got into his car in Islamabad. A Catholic, he died because he refused to hide beneath a cloak of silence that shrouds Pakistan’s detestable blasphemy laws. He was a man of profound faith, principle and courage who would not be cowed by the religious bigots and zealots who abound in Pakistan.

Reports suggest his assassins are religious extremists with Taliban connections. It seems unlikely the killers, cheered as heroes by many Muslim Pakistanis, will ever face trial. And just as there appears no haste to track them down, there seems little urgency to disarm the blasphemy laws that were the ammunition for this murder.

Bhatti’s death brought renewed calls from several Western states, including Canada, for Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy laws that impose death on anyone convicted of insulting Islam. The laws are routinely abused to persecute minorities, particularly innocent Christians. The Pope has condemned them and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has encouraged the Canadian government to promote religious freedom in its dealings with foreign governments. Similar calls followed the death in January of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province murdered by his own bodyguard after advocating reform of the blasphemy laws.

Words alone, however, will probably never be sufficient to persuade the Pakistan government to confront the extremists on this issue. The scourge of racial apartheid in South Africa only ended after Western nations imposed economic and other sanctions. The religious apartheid in Pakistan, the Middle East and Asia calls for similar measures.

More than issuing declarations, Western nations have a moral duty to vigourously intervene when segregation, discrimination, harassment and killings are the result of laws that turn any minority into targets. Western nations have intervened robustly when a state has committed or endorsed crimes against its own racial minorities, women or ethnic groups. These nations should be equally indignant and moved to act when people are being  targetted because of their faith.  

But that hasn’t happened in Pakistan. The Pakistani government has publicly denounced religious assassinations but done nothing to reform the laws that embolden religious terrorism. Western governments have denounced the vile blasphemy laws but applied no real pressure to cause their repeal.

Shahbaz Bhatti courageously confronted this injustice. But he stood, and died, virtually alone.

Pakistani minister for minorities gunned down in Islamabad (2nd March 2011)
Toronto Pakistanis mourn one of their own (8th March 2011)
Assassination draws widespread condemnation (9th March 2011)
Fr. Raymond J. de Souza: A courageous martyr (9th March 2011)

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