Peter Bhatti, brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, at the inaugruation of a park named in Shahbaz's honour in Brampton, Ontario.

Brampton park named for slain defender of persecuted Christians

By  Susan Korah, Catholic Register Special
  • July 28, 2022

Shahbaz Bhatti, declared Servant of God by Pope Francis in 2012, has a special place in the hearts of thousands of Pakistani Canadians who fled their country to find safety and freedom of religion here. 

A park named in Bhatti’s honour, inaugurated July 24 in Brampton, Ont., bears testimony to his special connection with Canada, where his brother Peter and his family live and actively continue Shahbaz’s work of protecting the rights and dignity of religious minorities in Pakistan and around the world. 

Brampton is home to about 5,000 Pakistani Christians who came to Canada in search of freedom to practise their religion in safety, without fear of discrimination. 

“My brother Shahbaz was a symbol of religious liberty for all,” said Peter, chair of the NGO International Christian Voice and a major force behind the Shahbaz Bhatti Park initiative. 

He recounted how, in 2011, shortly before his brother was assassinated for defending the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan, he visited Canada. Jason Kenney, former minister of immigration, had offered him asylum here because Shahbaz, Pakistan’s Minister of Minority Affairs, devout Catholic and the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet, kept receiving death threats from people infuriated by his defence of persecuted minorities. But Shahbaz had insisted on returning to his home country, saying: “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?” 

He was gunned down in a March 2, 2011 ambush in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. 

“Today is a historic day for all of us and for all those who believe in human rights and religious freedom,” Peter said in his speech at the Shahbaz Bhatti Park inauguration ceremony. “Today our city of Brampton recognizes the efforts of a person who fought his entire life to promote human rights and religious freedoms and stood with the oppressed and marginalized people of Pakistan. He ultimately sacrificed his life, and he is our hero, our leader and our brother, martyr Shahbaz Bhatti.” 

In a moving tribute to his parents, Peter continued: “I would like to remember today my father Jacob Bhatti and mother Martha Bhatti who gave us an identity, courage and taught us how to stand for truth and justice. It is because of them that a hero like martyr Shahbaz Bhatti was able to make a difference in this world.”  

“It gives me a real feeling of pride to see our martyred leader honoured for his stand on religious freedom. It’s wonderful to see Canadians of diverse cultural and religious heritage attending the Shahbaz Bhatti Park inauguration,” said Javied Bakhsh, a member of the Pakistani Christian community. 

Peter acknowledged the role of Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown in bringing this dream to fruition. 

“When Shahbaz visited Canada in 2011, Patrick was the MP for Barrie, and was with the other parliamentarians who met Shahbaz. In 2015, we held a human rights conference in Ottawa in memory of my brother. Patrick was supportive and came to many of our events. He came up with the idea that it would be nice to have a park in Brampton named in honour of Shahbaz.”  

He also recalled that former prime minister Stephen Harper and his government had recognized the sacrifice of his brother by presenting him with the John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award, which Peter and his mother, Martha, received on his behalf in 2012. 

“My brother Paul Bhatti, who is based in Italy, and I here in Canada, honour Shahbaz’s legacy by continuing his work of advocating for the rights of faith minorities,” Peter said. “There is much work to be done, because Pakistan is still silent on the issue of reforming its notorious blasphemy laws which are used as an instrument of oppression against Christians and other minorities. Also, the assassins of Shahbaz Bhatti have not yet been brought to justice.” 

“Canada can do a lot to advance religious freedom in Pakistan,” added Bakhsh. “The government must publicly raise its voice against the draconian blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Trade and aid relations with Pakistan can and must be linked with advancing religious freedom..”

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