ROME (RNS) Paul Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, worked as a surgeon in his home country of Pakistan and in Europe, while his brother, Shahbaz, went into politics and became Pakistan’s only Christian Cabinet member as the country’s first minister of minority affairs.
Then, on March 2, 2011, Shahbaz was cut down in a hail of bullets in an attack by a militant group that called him “a blasphemer.”
“My life and profession changed after the assassination of my brother,” Paul Bhatti said in an interview with RNS.
“That was a situation I never expected to be in,” he added calmly. “I was not aspiring to be a politician, but it happened. I think God’s ways are different, and it happened.”
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After the assassination, Bhatti founded a trust in his brother’s name and then was himself appointed minister for national harmony and minority affairs.
Bhatti spoke to RNS during a recent conference in Rome on the persecution of Christians. He said they are persecuted in Pakistan because they are wrongly associated with the actions of Western governments.
“The West is considered like a Christian, and Christian people somehow seem to represent the West,” said Bhatti. “A lot of people have hatred in their hearts against the West.”
Pakistan’s bishops have called on the Vatican to declare Shahbaz Bhatti a martyr. Some in the West want him to be canonized, though his legacy has been blemished by an apparent family quarrel.
Paul Bhatti now lives in both Pakistan and Italy and has met Pope Francis. And like his brother before him, Bhatti is campaigning for the repeal of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, which dates back to British rule.
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Three death sentences were handed down in 2014 against people deemed to have defamed the Prophet Muhammad, though none of the executions has been carried out.
But death sentences sometimes spark violence before being carried out. That happened in 2014 when Muslims attacked homes in Lahore’s Christian Joseph colony after a verdict against Sawan Masih, who was accused of insulting Muhammad during a dispute with a Muslim friend. There have also been killings of people who sought to defend others accused of blasphemy.
Saroop Ijaz, Pakistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, condemned the blasphemy law as “an instrument of oppression.”
“It’s completely discriminatory and has resulted in a lot of mob violence. … It is providing and enabling an environment for religious violence to take place,” he said.
Ijaz criticized the government’s failure to punish perpetrators of attacks, and he argued that creating the ministerial post– which Shahbaz Bhatti got in 2008 — has not been enough to protect religious minorities.
“Practically this (job) has not worked out, we have seen successive governments in Pakistan not willing to pick up this fight,” he said. “These roles become ceremonial positions, because from the highest levels of government you do not have the willingness to do something.”
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Bhatti, meanwhile, said broader societal changes are needed to overcome the oppression of religious minorities. Education was seen as one of the most important factors, both by improving the overall literacy rate, which is around 54.9 percent according to recent U.N. figures, and by teaching tolerance in schools.
This goes hand in hand with bringing different faith groups together to dispel misinformation, he said: “Some of the innocent Muslims who don’t have the possibility of engaging with Christians or other minorities genuinely believe that Christians or other religions are their enemy, because they’re told by some people.”
Bhatti is hopeful, though. He said the situation has improved in recent months, and he hopes greater political stability now will create a more prosperous and tolerant Pakistan.
“When I was a child it was a better environment. Then there was a period in which we have faced the violence. Now I think it is a better situation,” he said.
(Rosie Scammell covers the Vatican for RNS)