06 March 2013

'He always knew that one day he would die a martyr . . . he wanted to die for Christ': a nephew of Shahbaz Bhatti.

In the video above a nephew and nieces of Shahbaz Bhatti speak about their uncle. His only sister and one of his brothers speak of their loss.

In the very worst of times in the history of the Church God has called certain individuals to the vocation of martyrdom. I believe that Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic politician in Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim country, was one of those. Each martyr speaks to us of the Cross.

Two years ago on 2 March Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and the only Christian member of the Cabinet in Pakistan, was assassinated in Islamabad just after he had left his mother’s house. Recently Fr Tomás King, Coordinator of the Columban Mission Unit in Pakistan, met Gerard Bhatti, a brother of Shahbaz, and wrote this article, published in the current issue of Misyon, the online magazine of the Columbans in the Philippines of which I am editor.

Fr Tomás King and Gerard Bhatti

Shahbaz Bhatti was the youngest in a family one sister and five brothers. They were born in the Catholic village of Khushpur, near the city of Faisalabad in the Punjab. Khushpur means ‘Happy Land’. It was named after its founder, Father Felix, a Capuchin missionary, his name being the Latin for ‘happy’. The village was founded in 1900. It is one of 53 such villages founded throughout the country by various missionary congregations, mostly before the partition of 1947. The founding of these villages made a huge impact on the sense of dignity and self-worth of an oppressed group of people. Khushpur has produced two bishops and many priests and sisters. It is also the home of the National Catechists Training Centre.There are 300 families in the village.

Jaclyn, the only sister, was the first-born, followed by Paul, who was appointed Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs after the death of his brother, Peter, Gerard, Sikandar and Shahbaz, whose Christian name was Clement. The family owns four acres of land, now farmed by Sikandar. His mother is still alive while his father, Jacob, died only weeks before his martyrdom. Christian or ‘Western’ names were usually given by the missionaries. The two youngest children being given Sub-continent names maybe reflects the need to fit in as the country gradually became more Islamised.

Despite being implored to the contrary, in his 20s Shahbaz decided not to marry so as to devote his life to the struggle for human rights of the oppressed and for justice and peace, which wa a very counter-cultural commitment to make.

From an early age Shahbaz showed leadership abilities. Even as a teenager in high school he spoke out against the oppression of his Christian community.A defining moment in his consciousness seems to have occurred in his late teenage years when some Muslims tried to take over land owned by Christians. Then he started the Christian Liberation Front, the first of many organisations he was to either found or belong too.

He was committed to individual daily prayer as well as regular attendance at the Eucharist. Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd, was a favorite of his, especially in latter years when his life was under threat. This highlights an important dimension of inculturation in the Church in Pakistani, especially those coming from the Punjabi community: the Psalms were translated at an early stage into Punjabi and are sung like lively folk songs. They are deeply embedded in the spirituality of the people. Devotion to St Anthony of Padua is also an important part of the spirituality of Pakistani Christians.

Shahbaz graduated from high school in his home village. From there he went to the nearby city of Faisalabad for his pre-university courses, then to Lahore to study for a degree in science. All the time he was involved in human rights issues.

An exposure in Khushpur for journalists in the context of inter-faith affairs. It includes a visit to the grave of Shabhaz Bhatti.

In 2002 he was elected as a member of the National Assembly and became the first Christian to be a full federal minister after the elections in 2008. He used this position to campaign against the Blasphemy Laws, as well as dialogue with all people of good will committed to human rights and justice.

He knew his life was in danger and his family warned him many times and urged him to leave the country.He refused to do so. As a faithful disciple of Jesus who gave his life, Shahbaz too felt he must continue his struggle, no matter the consequences. He got to know deeply the meaning of the cross. He is considered a martyr by the Christian faithful and people pray to him, and some claim their prayers have been answered.  

Some people have been arrested but nobody has been charged with his murder. His life is symbolic of the bigger picture of the Pakistan reality.

In Khushpur, on the occasion of his second death anniversary there will be prayers memorials, programs and seminars in his memory. As years go by it is hoped that the significance and meaning of Shahbaz’s life and death will be understood more deeply.

When the government offered Shahbaz’s Ministry for Minorities Affairs to the family, they chose Paul as the oldest son to carry the vision and legacy of Shahbaz forward. Paul is a medical doctor by profession.

Gerard himself has received death threats by phone. He is actively involved in his adopted Cathedral parish of Hyderabad, many miles from his home village of Khushpur.

'I live for religious freedom and I'm ready to die for this cause.'

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