A little less conversation…

By Mohsin Abbas

The Pakistan Government has failed to protect religious minorities from systematic campaigns of violence and vilification. Sitting all the way here in Canada it feels to me like the file of Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder case has been buried under the files of ‘Dengue virus’ and the ‘lap top scheme of the Government of Punjab’. On March 2, 2011, gunmen assassinated Bhatti, the minister of minorities’ affairs in Pakistan, and the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet.

Bhatti’s first death anniversary has just passed this month while his killers are still on the run.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird recently presented this year’s John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award to the late minorities’ minister. It is indeed a very great honour for Pakistani minorities to receive this award on behalf of Bhatti. And for that, I would like to thank the Canadian Government. By doing so, Canada has recognised Bhatti’s effort to highlight the misuses of the Blasphemy Law, commonly used to accuse minorities in general, and Christians in particular.

Mr. Peter Bhatti accepted the award on behalf of his late brother. Peter now lives in Canada, where he is working to promote religious harmony, and raise awareness about the plight of minorities, especially in developing countries.

“With this award, Canada honours the memory of Shahbaz Bhatti, whose determined efforts in the struggle for equality, justice and freedom cost him his life,” said Baird.

“Braving multiple threats to his safety, Mr. Bhatti worked tirelessly to advance the rights of Pakistan’s religious minorities.”

“Canada stands with the defenders of human rights for all — people who courageously seek to promote and protect fundamental freedoms around the world.”

Bhatti’s death is not a lone incidence of brutal violence nor are the planned acts of aggression against minorities a new thing to my fellow Pakistanis. It has, in fact alarmingly become a norm in the ‘Land of the Pure’.

I had personally witnessed Bhatti’s work. His mission was to struggle for equality under the law for Pakistan’s various religious minorities. He had often expressed his opposition to Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws and persistently sought to reform them.

Bhatti was pushed on the helm by President Asif Ali Zardari to campaign against blasphemy laws after the assassination of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab in capital Islamabad by his police bodyguard on January 4, 2011.

On Shahbaz Bhatti’s first death anniversary, Prime Minister Gilani said that the government was committed to the welfare of minorities and had taken a number of practical steps in this regard.

I don’t understand how we are expected to accept that when no one have even been charged with the crime, much less tried and held accountable. What these empty statements do however reveal is that the country has been paying lip service to its minorities, and for a very long time now.

The Honorable Jason Kenney, Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, remembered Bhatti as a champion of freedom and of all those who are persecuted for their faith. “I am profoundly saddened as I reflect on how the life and work of this brave man came to such a brutal and untimely end,” said Kenney.

“As the first and only Christian minister in the Pakistani government, he understood personally the importance of protecting religious and ethnic minorities. He worked tirelessly to defend religious freedom in Pakistan and around the world, not least through his fearless public condemnation of his country’s blasphemy laws.”

Bhatti’s brother, Dr Paul Bhatti, who was made a special adviser to the President for religious minorities after his death, is not optimistic about any development in the investigation process in the near future either.

Paul expressed dissatisfaction over the pace of investigations in his brother’s assassination. “The slow pace in investigations is an embarrassment,” he recently told media in Pakistan.

“The investigators have spoiled my brother’s case and pushed it into a blind alley by changing their stance in every report they submitted to the interior ministry,” he added.

There is still time and I think Pakistani officials should honour Bhatti’s legacy by challenging the systematic campaign of vilification and attacks on minorities. The Blasphemy Law is a sensitive issue in a country like Pakistan and it should be handled by the parliament as a real priority.

The minorities in Pakistan — no matter who they are and where they are living — are constantly under fear. Forced conversions of Hindu girls, acts of violence against Shias and Ahmadis seem to be rising at an alarming rate. Many Christian families are extremely anxious after the conviction of Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman facing death penalty for allegedly committing blasphemy.

A recent tragic killing of Shias in Gilgit prompted a friend of mine to change her children’s last name, scared of the escalating level of intolerance.

Your name is a big part of your identity; it proudly reveals your sectarian or religious beliefs. Yet, here we are, watching the minorities of our country make that inexcusable choice between identity and security.

 Mohsin Abbas is an award-winning Pakistani-Canadian journalist, filmmaker and press freedom activist. He is the editor of Diversity Reporter, a multilingual weekly newspaper for newcomers and immigrants in Canada. He can be reached at editor@diversityreporter.com