|01-04-2011 - Traces, n. 4
Thus Is Born
On March 2nd, the Pakistani Minister for Minorities was killed by a Muslim death squad. What has flowered since then is breathtaking. "I want to live for Jesus, and I want to die for Jesus," was his testament. Where did such a man come from? We met those who had known him since he was a child, when he already knew Whom he wanted to be with. Here is his story.
BY DAVIDE PERILLO
Two minutes. It doesn't sound like much, but try counting it out. One second, two… up to one hundred and twenty. Only then can you imagine what a hell two minutes of machine gun fire must have been. Shabhaz Bhatti died this way. A white jeep blocked his black Corolla in a residential street of the I-8/3 neighborhood of Islamabad. Three armed men forced the driver to get out, then two infinite minutes of shooting, without jamming and without pity. Bhatti was pronounced "dead on arrival" at Shifa International Hospital, while police stretched white and red tape around the car with the shattered windows. A curious man put his finger in the holes left by the bullets in the wall of a house on the other side of the sidewalk. It was raining. His blood covered the beige seat and leather bag where the Minister for Minorities, the only Catholic in the government of Pakistan, kept his papers and memoirs of the battles that cost him his life: protection for discriminated Christians, work against the blasphemy law, the defense of Asia Bibi, the woman who was condemned to death because of that law.
This is all we knew of him, before that March 2nd. We were expecting to meet him at the Meeting of Rimini, to which he had been invited, to get to know him better. But after his murder, something else has flowered. Reading his "spiritual testament" in the book Christians in Pakistan (Marcianum Press, 2008) sends chills down your spine now. "I do not want popularity; I do not want any position. I just want a place at Jesus' feet." "I want to live for Christ and I want to die for Him." His battles, even far from the limelight… His disarming certainty that sooner or later he would truly die, that the threats of the fundamentalists would become a reality... And that word, "martyr," that every so often doesn't seem exaggerated for a politician, and pushes us to ask other questions: Who truly was Shabhaz Bhatti? Where did he come from? How did such a testimony flower in a land where everything cries out the opposite?
To answer, we need to start far away, at his home. Not the house in Islamabad where he had prayed with his mother, as he did every morning, before encountering his executioners, but another, further south, in Khushpur, Punjab, 25 miles from Faisalabad, 8 miles from Gojra (known for the massacres of Christians a year and a half ago). His hometown, organized in a network of dirt roads, is a rectangle of low houses with tiled walls of thin cement set in. The church, built in the 1930s, is of red brick with a sloping roof and, in front of the façade, where you would expect a bell tower, there is a palm tree that waves in the breeze. Around it is a canal and fields of wheat, rice, and sugarcane, the lands that the Belgian Capuchins bought from the government at the beginning of the 1900s to distribute to the peasants they'd met. It was woods and forest back then, and became Khusphur, which in Urdu means "the village of happiness," partly in homage to Fr. Felix, the founder, but mainly because the air one breathes there is different from that of the surrounding towns, which the maps mark with just abbreviations–Chak 48 JB, Chak 212…
THE ISLAND. Khushpur is the only Catholic village in Pakistan. Almost all of its 8,000 residents are baptized, and almost all have studied up to high school. Many families have produced vocations: 2 bishops, 35 priests, and about 100 nuns. Some are in the Dominican convent or work in the medical dispensary for the poor. But there are also two Catholic schools, an aid society named after Saint Catherine of Siena, and an adult education center. This village is a kind of island, in an ocean inhabited by 180 million Muslims, where Christians are barely 3% of the population, a place where, as recounts 46-year-old Fr. Paul Isaac, who was assigned to Vico Fertile, Parma, seven years ago, "you met people like my grandfather, who brought us to 5:30 am Mass before school;" where children play soccer in the streets, rather than hockey or cricket, and where, in the words of Fr. Piero Gheddo, missionary historian of the PIME order, remembering a visit in the mid-1980s, "the difference with the nearby Muslim villages was shocking for a number of reasons: the cleanliness of the streets and homes, the freedom of the women who smiled, stopped to chat, even let themselves be photographed (this was considered a crime elsewhere), the vivacity of the boys and girls…" In other words, it was another world. "Once I invited some Italian workers who were employed building a dam," recounts Fr. Aldino Amato, a Dominican, from Molfetta in Puglia, who was a parish priest in Khushpur from 1962 to 1972: "They arrived in the village and met the Corpus Domini procession, with priests, nuns, a crowd following, and songs. They couldn't believe it: 'It seems like home.' It was true."
This is the environment where Bhatti, baptized by Fr. Amato ("his Christian name is Clement"), breathed the faith from his earliest days, growing up in a family that had converted four generations before. His father, Jacob, was an official who had left the military to teach in the village school. He married Martha, and they had six children. Jacqueline, the oldest, then five boys until Shabhaz, the youngest. "He laughed a lot, joked often," recounts Paul, his physician brother who lives in Padua and is in line to take his position in the Pakistani government. "Even if he was the youngest, he was the one capable of making us get along. Everybody wanted to be with him."
And he knew who to be with, even as a child. "I remember a Friday of Holy Week when I was only thirteen," he recounts in the book. "I was listening to a sermon on Jesus' sacrifice for our redemption. I found myself reflecting, and thought of answering that love by giving love." He began to study the Bible, and founded a parish youth group. He made a decision that went against the current, for a family well off enough to send all its children to private school: after St. Thomas, unlike his brothers, he wanted to attend a state school. "He wanted to see another world," explains Paul.
What he encountered was not a just world. He realized this very quickly. "Once, as a student, he went to a college to see a friend," Paul recounts. "He was Christian, so the others didn't want him to eat with them. When he saw this, he jumped up and said, 'No, this discrimination must be eliminated.' He made the sign of the cross and said, 'From now on, I will fight to eliminate it.'"
Listening to the witnesses who speak about him, looking them up, and putting their words together, you find that they are very similar. What emerges is the portrait of a man who kept his word, from the start. "He was a brilliant student," recalls Fr. Bonnie Mendes, also from Khushpur, who today coordinates Caritas in Asia. "Not extraordinary, but he asked very intelligent questions. Why this? Why that? What can we do? He always spoke of the oppressed, of the despised."
The despised were those to whom he dedicated himself at home as well, during vacations. "At Christmas, he took a cart, decorated it, and went around the village, asking for gifts for those who couldn't have any," recounts Paul. "The next day, another trip, this time among the poor to distribute what he had received. In the beginning it made us all laugh a bit, because we didn't have this mentality, but then we understood." Paul also understood what happened to the money Shabhaz asked of him and his brothers every now and then. "For his studies, he said. But this was for the poor, too."
PLATES AND GLASSES. Fr. Isaac says, "I remember at college, he and a little group of young people helped out in the diocese, participated in functions." He was very close to John Joseph, the bishop who, according to the government's version of the death, committed suicide in protest in 1998. "At his funeral, Shabhaz and his friends said they had to do something, that a man could not suffer an injustice of this kind. I never would have thought that he too would die as a martyr."
Bhatti grew up under the wing of Msgr. Joseph, who was also born in the same village. "They organized cultural gatherings, moments of dialogue between Muslims and Hindus," recounts Fr. Isaac. "It was a way to explain that none of us hates the others, that it is possible to grow together. We still haven't succeeded. It takes time…" Back then, as well, it often ended badly. "Once, I organized a meeting of Christian students," recounted Shabhaz in the book. "I was beaten. There was a university bulletin board for announcements. I put up my own: 'I can die for my Jesus, but I can't stop reuniting my sisters and brothers and my fellow Christians.'"
Thus, a little at a time, alongside the conferences, the first social battles sprang up. "At a certain point, the government wanted to introduce a different identity card for non-Muslims," explains Paul. "Shabhaz began to organize protests and write letters. The law was not passed. It was his first success."
These were the same years in which Bhatti, supported by Bishop Joseph, founded the Christian Liberation Front, half the embryo of a party, half a cultural association. Among the first members was John Phillip, a journalist and past helper of Bishop Joseph in the fight for human rights, who has been in Italy since 1986, when he escaped Pakistan after death threats. Now he pastes up billboard announcements for the city of Fidenza and continues to build relationships among his expatriate countrymen. "I met Shabhaz 20 years ago, in Faisalabad," he explains, "and he, I, my nephew, and five others formed the CLF, with the support of Bishop Joseph." It happened some time after lunch at a restaurant. "There were seven of us. We sat down and began to eat, and from our conversation the waiters understood that we were Christians. The owner came and told us that we also had to pay for our plates and glasses. 'Take them with you. We Muslims can't eat from them now.' We began to protest, then to argue, but there were no two ways about it. We paid. What did Shabhaz say? I don't remember his words, but his face, yes."
"To be a minority in Pakistan, like Mr. Bhatti, is to wear a scarlet letter that sentences one to a subordinate and, in many cases, subservient life where discrimination and fear exist on all strata of your existence," wrote A.S. Alam for the The Washington Times. Nothing could be truer. And it was to eradicate this letter that Bhatti founded another group, the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. Then came the public gatherings (the one in 1995 in Islamabad was famous) and the defense of churches after September 11th, the social activities, and quick assistance in the zones struck by floods or earthquakes (such as the October 2005 earthquake, which was devastating, with 75,000 deaths). Then, there was a decisive shift towards politics. In 2002, the Christian leader associated himself with the Popular party, the most liberal and "secular" party of Islamabad, which was in search of names for candidacy in a Parliament that reserved five seats for minorities. His platform? Simple: "I desire only that my country be blessed by Christ."
A NOOSE. He served as Representative, and then in 2008 became Minister. The government wanted to lighten the image of a regime insensible to the wave of anti-Christian violence sponsored by extremists, and he knew it, but accepted nonetheless because from there he would be able to defend his people better, Christian and non-Christian. "When he accepted the job, he swore he would fight to his last drop of blood," His Excellency Rufin Anthony, Bishop of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, told Asia News: "And so it went. He paid with his blood." But before falling, he brought home important results, in an increasingly hostile context, such as the 5% quota of government jobs reserved for minorities, the prayer rooms for non-Muslims in prisons, the 24-hour-a-day hotline for reporting discrimination, and the establishment of a National Day for Minorities (August 11th). He had struggles, unsparing battles. "Last year, the fundamentalists burned a Christian village nearby," recounts Paul. "He stood in front of a train to ask for justice. The President and some ministers came and started an inquiry."
The most violent battle, however, was over law 295c, the Blasphemy Law. Introduced in the 1970s, and made more severe in 1986 by the regime of General Zia ul Haq, it permitted judges to order the death penalty for those who insult the Prophet or the Koran, merely on the basis of an accusation. More often than not, these accusations were motivated by personal vendetta or to resolve other disputes about land, women, or money, things that have little to do with religion. But the law had devastating effects. "It's a noose," notes Fr. Amato. "It's enough for two people to accuse you, and you risk the sentence. Many times, even though the judge does not rule for the accusers, you end up murdered." Before Zia, there were only two condemnations for "blasphemy," but after, the number rose to 962, 119 of whom were Christians; 34 executions have been carried out, according to Time magazine.
One is pending. It concerns Asia Noreen, known as Asia Bibi. A Christian, and mother of five children, in June 2009 she quarreled with other (Muslim) women in her village of Ittam Wali, in this case about water and pails, not faith. Two days later, the police arrested her, and after 18 months of prison and violence, on November 8, 2010, she was sentenced to death and, in effect, so were the people who defended her, such as Salman Taseer, the popular governor of Punjab, who worked tirelessly to ask for justice for Asia Bibi and was killed on January 4th by his bodyguard: 27 shots and a cry, "Allahu akbar," "Allah is great."
Everyone knew that Shabhaz Bhatti would be the next, because he had been working for two years to obtain a ministerial commission to revise the Law. He was the one who, after his confirmation as Minister in February (after a reshuffling that reduced the number of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's executives from 50 to 22 ministers) renewed his program, which was simple but threatening to the fundamentalists: "Face the most serious challenges, such as the law on blasphemy, and testify to faith in Jesus."
HIS WORK. A series of threats arrived, increasingly harsh. He refused escorts and protection. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, recalls his last meeting with Bhatti, last November 28th: "He came to greet me at the Lahore airport and told me, 'I know that they will kill me. I offer my life for Christ and for dialogue among faiths.' He was aware that he was a target. On the Internet you can still see the video of a television interview from two months ago, and watching it freezes your blood. 'Fear? I believe in Christ, who gave His life for us. It's better to die than to compromise my principles.'"
It ended as foreseen, on that Islamabad street in the rain. The guilty party? Certainly the Taliban, but not only. The inquiries are proceeding slowly, with the government oscillating between indifference and fear, as if it can't afford more martyrs or irritations. As this article goes to press, it is still unknown whether the Ministry for Minorities will have the same powers. But on March 24th, Paul Bhatti (a surgeon and pediatrician) was named new "special advisor" for religious minorities. "The future? It depends on the people," says Fr. Amato, "and on Providence."
The present, instead, is one of rage and fear, prayer and vigils, like the one in Islamabad in which, at a certain point, a boy cried, "How many people outside Pakistan knew Shabhaz before he was killed?" There was a tense moment of silence. "Now, whoever has a television has seen him testify to Jesus. Even now that he is dead, God continues to use him to do His work."