Hundreds of Christians have taken to the streets of Pakistan in protest at the assassination of the minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was gunned down outside his home on Wednesday.
As the government declared three days of mourning, demonstrations were held across Punjab, where the Christian community is concentrated, with protesters burning tyres and demanding justice.
Such a show of anger is rare among Pakistan’s Christian minority, who enjoy little political power and are more often in the news as victims of violence from Muslim extremists. One of the largest crowds gathered in Gojra, in Punjab, where nine Christians were killed – seven of them burned alive – in 2009.
“This is such a black situation. We request the whole of humanity to do something for us,” said Yousaf Nishan, brother-in-law of Bhatti, who was the only Christian in the cabinet.
Bhatti was shot as he travelled to a cabinet meeting by killers who claimed to be affiliated with the Taliban and al-Qaida. It was the country’s second political assassination in two months: the Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was killed, also in Islamabad, on 4 January.
A dark tone pervaded reaction in the media. “Death of a state” was the editorial headline in the Express Tribune. “A graveyard for lunatics” read a despondent post on the Café Pyala blog.
“The killers may have escaped the scene of the crime but the real culprit is known to all: an extremist mindset that has, with the sponsorship of some institutions of the state, spread far and wide,” wrote Dawn newspaper.
References to “institutions” are usually a euphemism for the military’s powerful intelligence agencies that nurtured select jihadist groups in the 80s and 90s and, according to western officials, still do today.
The depth of the “extremist mindset” became evident after Taseer’s assassination, when lawyers showered his assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, with rose petals and 40,000 supporters filled a Karachi street.
Two weeks ago media reports said Qadri, who faces possible execution, was sent scores of Valentine’s Day cards.
The question is whether the reaction to Bhatti’s death will be any different. The early signs are not encouraging.
President Asif Ali Zardari vowed to combat the forces of obscurantism. “We will not be intimidated nor will we retreat,” he told the state news agency.
But many opposition leaders offered a muted response to Bhatti’s death, condemning the violence but offering little of the fiery rhetoric that normally characterises political discourse in Pakistan.
When the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, led a two-minute silence in parliament, three members of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam party remained seated.
“I am afraid that this could be an American conspiracy to defame the government of Pakistan, Muslims and Islam,” Rafi Usmani, the grand mufti of Pakistan, told AP.
Mainstream leaders are afraid of speaking out on the blasphemy law, which is considered politically toxic and potentially life-threatening among politicians.
Bhatti had, at one point, championed reform of the draconian law, although the ruling Pakistan People’s party of which he was a member rejected any change.
Analyst Mosharraf Zaidi called for an “urgent rehabilitation” of Pakistani society. “Bhatti’s murder is an unmitigated outrage, and Pakistan must start by acknowledging this,” he wrote.
But appetite for self-reflection appears limited. In Islamabad, where Bhatti was killed, just 60 people gathered outside a shopping market in pouring rain for a candlelit vigil, chanting: “We want peace”.
Pakistani society is nominally caste-free, but anti-Christian prejudices run deep, with Christians largely confined to low-paying jobs. Some Muslims refuse to eat food cooked by Christians, considering it unclean.
Bhatti, 42, was an exception to the rule. His funeral is due to take place at his home village near Faisalabad, 160 miles south of Islamabad, on Friday.
Protests across city against Bhatti’s murder
* Civil society members ask PPP to take stand on blasphemy law issue as per their party manifesto
* CHRE chief vows to continue struggle for moderation
By Afnan Khan
LAHORE: Several human rights activists, members of the civil society and a large number of Christian citizens held protest rallies across the city, on Thursday, over the assassination of the Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti.
The rallies were conducted in areas from the Lahore Press Club to The Mall. The protesters, while condemning the assassination, demanded the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government to “not only curb terrorism but also to take a clear stand on blasphemy law in the country as per their promise in the party manifesto.”
The groups and NGOs that participated in the activity included All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), Citizens for Democracy (CFD), Centre for Human Rights Education (CHRE), Christian Helpline, Pakistan Qaumi Masehi Party (Haqeeqi group), Maseehi Millat Party, Sweeper’s Union, Jharo Kash Mazdoor Union, Community Development Initiative, National Commission for Justice and Peace, Christian Lawyers Association, Punjab Bar Council, Punjab Teachers Association.
The number of protesters had increased as compared to the amount that protested on the day of the assassination.
The protesters were of the view that the cold-blooded and barbaric murder of Shahbaz Bhatti is “a murder of tolerance, diversity and respect for human rights in the country,” and said, “The freedom given to extremists was the root cause of all such heinous crimes.”
They demanded for the introduction and implementation of strict laws against communalism, spreading of hatred on the basis of colour, creed and caste. The protesters said, “The country would go further into chaos if the government did not take appropriate measures to curb extremism.” Separately, the citizens were of the view that “the government should protect all the civil society members and personalities who are struggling against the blasphemy law in the country,” adding, “It should have woken up to the challenge immediately after the assassination of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer”.
Meanwhile, the protests also caused massive traffic jams in the areas where they were being staged, and the traffic cops kept diverting the vehicles to alternate routes in order to avoid any untoward incident. The Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed on March 2 (Wednesday) when some unidentified terrorists sprayed bullets on his vehicle in sector I-8/3 area of Islamabad.
CHRE chief, Samson Salamat, and the PPP minority wing leader, Napolean Qayoom, while talking to Daily Times on the issue, said, “The non-Muslim communities, especially the Christians, have completely lost their faith in the government of Pakistan”.
They said that the Christians had actively participated in the creation of Pakistan and had offered unconditional support to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who promised equal rights for all Pakistanis. They added, “No incident of religious extremism or suppressing communal rights took place in the country before the introduction of the blasphemy law by the military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq.”
They said that civil society will continue its struggle against the discriminatory law and demanded President Asif Ali Zardari to take a strict action against those who promoted hatred in the name of religion. They concluded on the note that the citizens would not let the blood of the martyred PPP leaders Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti go waste and they want the party to either announce the amendment of the blasphemy law as promised in their manifesto or openly withdraw from their stand.
Protest rallies across Lahore demand arrest of Bhatti’s killers
By Moayyed Jafri
Friday, March 04, 2011
Large rallies and protests held all across the provincial metropolis called for the arrest of killers of Shahbaz Bhatti, threatening of a long march on March 15 if the murderers were not caught by the then.
The biggest of the rallies was carried out from Gulshan-e-Ravi till the Babu Sabu Interchange of the Lahore Motorway. The protestors were holding banners and placards and chanting slogans against all forms of terrorism.
They chanted slogans against Mullahs and their supporters. A severe traffic jam followed the protest proving great inconvenience to thousands of citizens who were stuck in the traffic jam. All major civil rights bodies ñ including All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), Citizens for Democracy (CFD), Christian Helpline, Pakistan Qaumi Masehi Party (Haqeeqi group), Maseehi Millat Party, Sweeperís Union, Jharo Kash Mazdoor Union, Community Development Initiative, National Commission for Justice and Peace, Christian Lawyers Association, Punjab Bar Council and Punjab Teachers Association ñ took part in the rally . The activists participating in the demonstrations included son of ex-governor Salmaan Taseer, Shan Taseer, CFD activist Taimour Rehman, PPP minorities wing leader Napolean Qayoom, Teachers leader Taaj Haider, MPA Dr Amna Buttar, Naeem, Abid Gill, APMA and Christian lawyers leader Khurram Shahzad Mann among others.
The members of the civil society who were leading the rally said that they would not rest until the murderers of the minister were caught and brought to book. They also announced holding another large protest at the Dubai Chowk Sadar on Friday (today). Another large protest was held by the Christian Democratic Alliance at the Lahore Press Club which was followed by a rally at the Cheering Cross. The participants of the rally expressed their anger and dissent at the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti and chanted anti-government slogans for not providing him proper protection that might have saved his life.†
The protests were staged in almost all parts of the city. Minhajul Quran and Maseeh-e-Millat Party held protests at the Lahore Press Club. The protestors said that Pakistan was being highlighted due to the wrong reasons, demanding the state control the ongoing situation in which no one was safe. They said that the PPP had promised the minorities that the blasphemy law would not be misused but people of other faiths were being targeted, terming it a matter of grave concern.