PAKISTAN (BP)—Pakistan’s Christian minority spent the weekend paying respect to the man who openly stood for his faith in a nation known for persecuting Christians.
Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian adherent in Pakistan’s government, was assassinated March 2 after pushing for reform of harsh “blasphemy” laws that mandate death for people who leave or “insult” Islam.
More than 10,000 people, including Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, attended Bhatti’s burial service March 4 in Khushpur. Banners and posters hailing Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister of minorities, were set up in the streets. “Shahbaz Bhatti, son of the Nation, will be missed,” one banner read. Songs rang out as well as such chants as “We will carry on your mission Bhatti.”
At one memorial service a teenager stood up and asked those attending if they thought anyone in the world had ever heard of Shahbaz Bhatti before the tragic shooting.
“No,” she said, answering her own question. “But this week, everybody with a television could hear him testify about Jesus Christ. Even after death, God has used Shahbaz Bhatti for His work!”
Bhatti predicted his own assassination and recorded a message months ago that was to be released upon his death and now has been viewed all over the world.
“I am living for my community and for suffering people,” Bhatti said directly into the camera, “and I will die to defend their rights. I prefer to die for my principles and for the justice of my community rather than to compromise.
“If I change my stance today, who will speak out? I am mindful that I can be assassinated anytime,” he said, “but I want to live in history as a courageous man.”
Bhatti’s assassination in Islamabad was the second this year of a Pakistani politician who wanted to reform the controversial blasphemy laws. Two months ago, Punjab province governor Salam Taseer was killed by one of his own police bodyguards when he publicly supported Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy law.
Even with three days set aside by the government for mourning, a Christian worker said many in Pakistan’s Christian community found it hard to speak openly about Bhatti or their feelings for fear they would be targeted for persecution.
“On a normal day, Christians are the persecuted minority here,” said longtime worker Worth Ballinger*, explaining that only 1.5 percent of Pakistan’s 185 million people profess to be Christian. “People are hiding their emotions for the most part — except where they have been protesting.”
On Friday, hundreds of women with black flags marched in Khushpur, demanding the murderers be captured and hanged as tears flowed in front of Bhatti’s family home, where a large portrait of him stood. In Islamabad, Christians who were denied the chance to say a final goodbye to Bhatti at a memorial service protested across the street from the Catholic church. In other places around the country, crowds were calm and well behaved, enduring their grief and pain.
Ballinger said some Christians are encouraging one another to be people of hope and courage and to show love in this difficult time. Several college students reminded those attending a memorial service that they were to “love our enemies” and to “be witnesses in this place.”
“Why do you think God has birthed us in this country?” one student asked fellow mourners. “It’s to give a testimony for Jesus Christ! We must give a faithful testimony here so that people around the world can know the truth about Jesus.”
Pakistani Christians are calling for prayer for their nation, including:
— Punjabi Christians and believers around Pakistan who are more than ever threatened and without legal protection. They are not treated as equal citizens and have little rights in the area of religious expression.
— God’s use of Shabhaz Bhatti’s witness to encourage many more Christians to speak out for their faith in the face of persecution.
— More fearless Christian leaders to rise to positions of power who will provide more freedom for Christians to practice their faith.
*Name changed. Susie Rain is a writer for the International Mission Board living in Southeast Asia.