Shahbaz Bhatti was Pakistan’s only Catholic and Christian cabinet minister. CCN photo/Deborah Gyapong

Impact of Shahbaz Bhatti assassination still felt in Canada

By 
  • March 9, 2016

OTTAWA - It’s been five years since the assassination of Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, but his religious freedom legacy lives on in Canada and around the world. 

“I admire him a great deal,” said Canada’s Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for his witness.”

Bennett said while Bhatti was a devout Catholic, he spoke on behalf of all religious communities facing persecution — Christian, Hindu, Sikh or Shia Muslim who ran afoul of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws — and it cost him his life.

“In his assassination he paid the ultimate price for religious freedom,” he said. He also paid a price for the truth of “human dignity” and the importance of the “freedom all human beings must have to practice their faith.”

Former immigration minister Jason Kenney met Bhatti on a visit to Pakistan in 2009.

“I immediately realized that he was a remarkable man, filled with courage and a profound Christian faith,” Kenney told CCN in an e-mail. “He described for me the plight of all of the persecuted minority communities of Pakistan, and his efforts, as the first non-Muslim Pakistani cabinet minister, to defend the afflicted.” 

Bhatti worked on behalf of minorities even though he knew his work made him a target of extremists. When in Ottawa, Kenney introduced him to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and privately told him the Pakistani minister could soon be assassinated.

“Before he left Ottawa to return to Pakistan, I encouraged Shahbaz to stay until the situation there de-escalated,” Kenney said. “He refused to do so, telling me that ‘I know the way of the Cross, and I am called to follow it. If I do not go back, who will defend the defenceless, who will be a voice for the voiceless.’

“We paid a tearful goodbye to one another,” Kenney said. “I had at the time the sense of a man preparing to embrace martyrdom.”

Two weeks later, he was dead.

“Having known and worked with Shahbaz remains one of the great honours of my life,” said Kenney. “I have joined other Catholic legislators in writing to the Holy See to endorse a cause for his beatification.”

Bhatti’s inspiration solidified the Harper government’s focus on religious freedom, leading to the creation of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom, “one of the many good fruits of his life and witness,” Kenney said.

Bennett said Bhatti provides him with inspiration on the days when he finds the challenges of fighting for religious freedom overwhelming.

Peter Bhatti said his brother suggested he found International Christian Voice 16 years ago.About 1,000 people in the Greater Toronto Area support the organization which marked the fifth anniversary of Bhatti’s martyrdom March 5 with a dinner at the Canadian Coptic Centre in Mississauga, Ont.

Bennett has also developed a good relationship with Dr. Paul Bhatti, who succeeded his brother as an advisor to the Pakistani government on religious minorities. After his brother’s assassination, Paul Bhatti, a surgeon, took over as head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, a group his younger brother had founded. 

In Canada, International Christian Voice has punched well above its weight in raising awareness of the plight of persecuted Christians in Pakistan. Last fall, Peter Bhatti and others from the organization paid a 10-day visit to about 4,000 Pakistani Christians who had fled death threats in their home country and were trying to survive in Thailand. Peter Bhatti said this group faces immigration problems there and has no money for rent, food or medical treatment. 

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