Shahbaz Bhatti: Christian, martyr, friend…

Shahbaz Bhatti: Christian, martyr, friend...

by Tim Dean

It is a strange experience hearing breaking news on the Today programme that a friend has been assassinated. It was completely unsurprising, yet totally shocking.

He knew it would happen as certainly as night follows day - yet it did not deter him from his Christian calling to promote the rights of all minorities in Pakistan and the pursuit of justice. I got to know him a few years ago as a member of First Step Forum. Ironically, it was when three of us from FSF went with him to meet Benazir Bhutto in her London home. (Shahbaz and Benazir were very good friends. She told us that he was of the few people who went to her aid when she was put under house arrest in Karachi many years before.) FSF recorded the video ‘testimony’ shown around the world yesterday, recorded in Dubai last December in anticipation of his murder.

Shahbaz was an extraordinary Christian. When in Pakistan I heard at firsthand how highly he was valued and respected by the leaders of other minority faith communities in the country and by the Prime Minister. Indeed, the two British-Pakistani Imams with whom I travelled to Pakistan in December 2009 as part of the Archbishop’s Delegation were deeply impressed by his integrity, commitment to the care of the persecuted, his passion for better relations between Christians and Muslims and not least his personal faith.

Shahbaz had spent all his adult life working for the oppressed and persecuted, especially Christians. His agency, the All-Pakistan Minorities Alliance was a ‘hands-on’ operation. He rescued individuals and families from violence and provided safe houses to protect them (and continued to do so while a cabinet minister). He pursued the perpetrators through the courts and did much more than I can summarise. Over decades he was hated by some because of all that. What is little known is that prior to being appointed a Federal Minister when the PPP came to power, he had survived three assassination attempts. He also survived the suicide bombing of Benazir Bhutto’s bus when she returned to Pakistan for the last time. Shahbaz was one of those on top of the bus and he told me he only survived because the people in front of him took the full force of the blast.

Those around him knew it was only a matter of time before he was killed. Although we expected it, it’s something that one’s heart, mind and soul cannot prepare for. That day was a black day for all of Pakistan, for his family, for the Christian community, for other minorities whose cause he championed.

We must remember that while this was done in the name of Islam, Shahbaz’s work was supported by Muslims: the APMA had Muslim lawyers working pro bono to prosecute cases for them, and his most senior colleagues in the Ministry for Minorities are Muslims, etc.

I have had the privilege of meeting and talking with Benazir Bhutto, the former Governor of the Punjab Salman Taseer, and also counting Shahbaz as a friend. They’ve all been assassinated. Their killers know exactly what they are doing: extinguishing the agents of hope.

Pray for all the people of Pakistan. Pray for Shahbaz’s family. Pray for Pakistan’s Christians ... It’s not a matter of praying when all hope seems to be lost, but a matter of when all hope seems to be lost to continue praying for the seemingly unattainable.. We are called to be people of hope even in our despair ...


Tim Dean is the continuing Ministerial Development Officer for Norwich diocese, and Director of the World Media Trust. In a voluntary capacity Tim is Executive Secretary of First Step Forum (an international network of Members of Parliaments; former Prime Ministers, Foreign Affairs Ministers, and Ambassadors; and others engaged in private, independent diplomacy for religious freedom and human rights). He is also a senior associate of the Washington based Institute for Global Engagement – a ‘think-tank with legs’, created to develop sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide. He was formerly a Commissioning Editor for the BBC World Service’s English network, and before that editor of Third Way.

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