Christian schools and colleges across Pakistan have been shutting down for three days from 3-5 March 2011 to protest the 2 March assassination in Islamabad of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Roman Catholic who was Minister for Religious Minorities - writes Anto Akkara.
The call for the action came at an emergency ecumenical meeting chaired by Archbishop Lawrence Saldana, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan. In a press statement from the meeting, church leaders said that if Pakistan "becomes a killing field" of people "who exercise their freedom of conscience and expression," then "criminals trying to take charge of the country" will be emboldened.
In addition, churches decided to observe Sunday, 6 March as a day of prayer and fasting. On 3 March, Christians and secular groups marched in the cities of Lahore, Karachi, Hyderabad and Faisalabad to protest Bhatti's killing.
Bhatti, aged 42, was ambushed and shot dead as he was being driven to his office. His funeral took place on 4 March in his native village of Kushpur.
A critic of Pakistan's blasphemy law, which makes criticism of the Prophet Muhammad a capital crime in the Muslim-majority nation, Bhatti last November initiated a clemency petition for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman currently in prison on blasphemy charges.
"My life is under threat. I am getting threat calls regularly," Bhatti had told ENInews at the end of a telephone interview on 22 November 2010. On 4 January, another high-ranking government figure, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, was killed after he criticised the blasphemy law.
Saldana told ENInews, “we salute the courage of Shahbaz who knowingly put his life in danger by speaking up boldly against the blasphemy law. We decided to close all the institutions to honour his sacrifice."
Victor Azariah, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in Pakistan (NCCP), told ENInews from his office at Lahore that "words cannot describe our feelings" at the news of Bhatti's killing. "We are stunned," he said.
"This is a big loss to the Christian community. We have a lost a fearless leader," Joseph Francis, founder director of CLAAS (Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement), told ENInews. "We are stunned by the failure of the government to provide proper security to Bhatti. When his car was ambushed, there were no security men around," said Francis, who knew Bhatti from his student days. CLAAS has been defending Christians and others charged under the blasphemy law.
World leaders, including US President Barack Obama, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Pope Benedict XVI, paid tribute to Bhatti. In New York, the Islamic Society of North America said it was "outraged" by the killing.
In a letter to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the General Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit called the crime "heinous and outrageous." He added that "extremists will stop at nothing in their desperate attempt to force religious extremism and violence on Pakistani society" and called for the protection of religious minorities.
Bhatti launched the Christian Liberation Front in his student days and later founded in 2001 the All Pakistan Minority Alliance. He joined the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in 2002. When the PPP assumed power in early 2008 under President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhatti was nominated to Pakistan’s National Assembly under the reserved quota for Christians and was made the federal minister for minority affairs.
[With acknowledgements to ENInews. ENInews, formerly Ecumenical News International, is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]