On Ash Wednesday, freedom of religion activists and organizations marked the 11th anniversary of the assassination of Pakistan's "Martin Luther King" former Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti.
Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in Islamabad on March 2, 2011, after many years of campaigning for Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) in Pakistan.
He introduced a bill in 2008 seeking representation of non-Muslims in the Pakistan Senate.
On March 2, 2012, the first anniversary of his martyrdom, 100 seats in Pakistan Senate were expanded to 104, with four seats reserved for religious minorities.
The online webinar celebrated his life and legacy in the struggle for Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) in Pakistan.
It was organized by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) in partnership with the Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation (CICF), International Christian Voice and the Institute for Global Engagement.
It featured contributions from former Anglican Bishop (now Catholic priest), Father Michael Nazir Ali, CICF President Michelle Chaudhry, CSW's Founder President Mervyn Thomas, Bhatti's niece Nitasha Bhatti, and Asia Bibi, whom Shahbaz Bhatti visited while she was imprisoned on blasphemy charges.
CSW's Founder, President Mervyn Thomas said, "When I met Shahbaz, I knew I was meeting a man of God. He was a man of great courage and compassion, a man of peace and reconciliation. Above all, he was a man of justice. It was a great achievement for him to become the Federal Minister for Minorities. He was a man of the people who stood up for those downtrodden. I thank God that his memory lives on."
CICF President Michelle Chaudhry spoke of him as “the Martin Luther King for minorities of Pakistan.”
She said Shahbaz dedicated his life striving to create "the Pakistan that the father of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had envisioned - to ensure an enlightened and moderate Pakistan, where every citizen could enjoy equal rights, opportunities and complete religious freedom."
She highlighted some of the contributions of Shahbaz as a government minister, such as the job quota of five percent for religious minorities in Pakistan and the setting up of inter-faith and harmony groups at village levels.
"His mission was to liberate the persecuted Christians of Pakistan from the clutches of religious discrimination, injustice hate, and intolerance," she said.
Nitasha Bhatti from Canada shared memories of her uncle. She said that Shahbaz had his fair share of struggles as a religious minority.
"He had every reason to despise his country and had every opportunity to leave and be successful abroad. Yet his love for his country never wavered, despite the hardships that the country threw at him. He believed in a Pakistan that was free for all to worship as they pleased, a Pakistan that was home to every religious minority."
The event also featured a panel discussion with Jan Figel, former Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion outside the EU, Knox Thames, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, Peter Bhatti, Founder and Chairman of International Christian Voice in Canada, Pakistani human rights activist Tahira Abdullah and CSW's Founder President Mervyn Thomas.
Video tributes about Shahbaz Bhatti included messages from, among others, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani, US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain, Peter Van Dalen MEP, the Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom Nadine Maenza, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Canada's Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Sean Fraser, and Voice of the Martyrs CEO Floyd Brobbel.
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