Pope Francis is praying for persecuted Christians in Pakistan and the Vatican is working with Islamabad to ensure their security, says the family of a Roman Catholic former Pakistani minister, who was murdered by the Taliban for allegedly insulting the Prophet.
The family of Shahbaz Bhatti, who was sprayed with bullets as he left his Islamabad home on March 2, 2011, met the Pope during his weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square on August 27.
“We requested the Holy Father to remember the situation in Pakistan in his prayers. There is no peace and Christians continue to be persecuted,” Dr Paul Jacob Bhatti, Shahbaz’s brother and a former Pakistani minister for national harmony, said.
“The Holy Father said that he is praying for the Christians of Pakistan and that he remembers my brother. He also said that the Vatican has been in contact with the people concerned in the Pakistani government to ensure safety of the Christians there,” he added.
Shahbaz, whose Christian name was Clement, was Pakistan’s federal minister for minority affairs from November 2008 until his death in 2011. He was the only Christian minister in the cabinet of the then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, and was an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
He was assassinated two months after Salman Taseer, the then governor of Punjab province, was shot dead by a security guard who was angry with the governor’s opposition to blasphemy laws.
Dr Paul, a medical surgeon and chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), has also received threats from the Taliban, and is currently out of the country.
Martha Jacob, the 89-year-old mother of the slain minister, also attended the papal audience in a wheelchair. She said that seeing the pontiff in person fulfilled her dream.
“Unse milke bahut achcha laga (Meeting him felt really good),” she said.
Peter Bhatti, chairman of the International Christian Voice and another one of Shahbaz’s brothers, was also in the audience. “Mother asked the Pope to visit Pakistan to encourage and support Christians there. She is greatly impressed with the Holy Father’s interaction with people and his work for peace among religions.”
Peter said that the family was grateful to the Vatican for arranging a personal audience with the Pope at a short notice.
Dr Paul said that not much has changed for the safety and security of minorities in Pakistan since his brother’s assassination.
“The persecution of Christians is still on in our country. It is not only misuse of the blasphemy law, but also the brainwashing of children with a radical philosophy that is a main threat to minorities in Pakistan. It is not about religious extremism, which is seen even among radical Christians, but in Pakistan, there is a terrorist agenda through which a lot of people misuse the teachings of a faith for personal gains, promote hate and instigate people to kill those belonging to other faiths. This is not religion, but the hijacking of religion,” he said.
“It’s also not just about Christians; there is serious unrest in Pakistan due to tensions between Shia and Sunni groups, as well as between various political groups,” he added.
Following Shahbaz’s assassination, Dr Paul intensified inter-religion dialogues between Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Ahmadi scholars in Pakistan through the APMA, which the slain politician had founded in 1985.
“We sit together and identify grassroot problems. We are now pushing for the teaching of religious tolerance in schools. We have a lot of good Muslims who have stood by us and supported our work, prominently Syed Muhammad Abdul Khabir Azad (the grand imam of the Badshahi mosque, the second largest in Pakistan) and Sardar Muhammad Yousaf (the Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony in the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif), besides several important Sunni, Hindu and Christian leaders. We are carrying forward the work of my brother. Our efforts have not stopped even though he is not there any more,” Dr Paul said.