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Heeding Shahbaz Bhatti’s CallHeeding Shahbaz Bhatti’s Call

Heeding Shahbaz Bhatti’s Call

A decade after the religious freedom fighter’s murder, Pakistani Canadians call on Ottawa to renew his work, Susan Korah reports.

Susan Korah
5 minute read

Ten years ago, the world lost a hero, a soldier who fought courageously in the treacherous terrain of Pakistani politics, for the fundamental rights of that country’s oppressed faith minorities. And the Canadian government needs to pay more than lip service to his legacy. It needs to take seriously Shahbaz Bhatti’s impassioned call to action on behalf of the most powerless and vulnerable religious communities of Pakistan. 

The voice of Bhatti, then Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs and the lone Christian in his country’s cabinet has been stilled forever.

But his message to Canada and the world still rings loud and clear.

On March 2, 2011, Bhatti met a martyr’s end in the streets of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. A group of Islamist extremists claimed responsibility for his murder and proclaimed their hatred for his strong defense of minority rights.

Bhatti remains the role model and inspiration for countless activists—including members of his Canadian family—who struggle to continue his mission.

“Although he always radiated such happiness, he still carried the grief of the innocent lives lost to another suicide bombing at a place of worship,” his Canadian nephew David Bhatti said at a recent virtual event celebrating his uncle’s life and legacy. “He was harbouring the heartache of wrongfully incarcerated prisoners who were languishing cold and alone, without any hope.”

The event was hosted by three organizations—International Christian Voice, the Toronto-based NGO founded by Peter Bhatti, brother of Shahbaz as well as two U.S.-based organizations, the Religious Freedom Institute and the Institute for Global Engagement.

“We will never forget his (Shahbaz Bhatti’s) sacrifice," said Ruby Sahota, MP for Brampton North, addressing attendees on behalf of Canada’s Prime Minister. “The government of Justin Trudeau has always stood for human rights, and you (activists) will always have a partner in us.”

The Prime Minister’s words of greeting stand in sharp contrast to the lackluster performance of his government on the freedom of religion and belief file. The inaction on what should be an important component of foreign policy reveals a curious moral blindness, as well as a baffling lack of appreciation for the dynamics of international politics.

The rights of Pakistani minorities, far from being of no concern to Canadians, are inextricably linked to global security, and to the refugee crisis. In addition, internal violence in any country, arising from inter-religious hostilities can be easily exported as terrorism to any part of the world.

Activists and leaders of community groups emphasize the importance of Canada taking a more decisive stand—and a more focused and targeted approach to preventing violence and injustice against Pakistan’s minorities who are still in dire straits.

According to Open Doors, an organization serving persecuted Christians, Pakistan remains one of the hardest places to live as a Christian. Violent persecution against Christians is rampant.

The situation of Ahmadiyyas (a Muslim sect considered heretic by the majority Sunni group) is just as bad or worse than that of Christians, says Faheem Affan, a leader of the community in the Ottawa area.

“Ahmadiyya Muslims are the most persecuted religious group in Pakistan, facing decades of persecution at the hands of extremists,” Affan told Convivium. “Since 1984, when the state amended the blasphemy laws to include several Ahmadiyya-specific clauses, hundreds of Ahmadiyyas have been killed, over 85 mosques have been demolished or sealed, and hundreds have been persecuted.”

He added that an Ahmadiyya mosque was demolished by government officials on March 17.

Affan makes a connection between neglecting this issue and the disastrous consequences it could have for world peace and security.

“Redressing the plight of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community is in the West’s best interest,” he pointed out. “The Western world must not be misled by Pakistan’s claim that democracy and freedom of religion exist there.  The West’s war on terror hinges upon securing the rights of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.”

Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom from 2013 until the Liberal government phased out the position in 2016, highlighted the importance of bringing freedom of religion or belief to the forefront of foreign policy priorities; also, of taking action to support the human rights of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

“The situation in Pakistan is not improving,” Bennett told Convivium. “Canada is not speaking out strongly on this issue. If we stand by our commitment to democracy and human rights, we should be leaders in the field.”

Click here for the Cardus Long Way podcast as Andrew Bennett and Carissima Mathen discuss the limits of religious freedom.

Bennett, now program director for the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, said the role of ambassador, with its high profile in the world of diplomacy, lent itself well to working effectively with like-minded allies and international colleagues to advance religious freedom around the world. During his term of service, he also oversaw certain practical projects in about 20-25 countries of concern, including Pakistan, to address the root causes of religious discrimination and persecution.

David Bhatti offered a similar view.

“The most important step for Canada to take is to re-establish the Office of Religious Freedom, or at least have a special envoy for freedom of religion or belief,” he said in an interview with Convivium.“Having an independent, bipartisan body advising the PM and government on issues of religious freedom—and on how and when to use sanctions on Pakistani officials—would be a major step in the right direction.”

Raheel Raza, a Pakistani Canadian Muslim activist and president of the organization Muslims Facing Tomorrow, agreed with Bennett and Bhatti that such a position would facilitate a more effective plan of action.

Raza, a Sunni Muslim, and an outspoken critic of violence in the name of her faith, has spoken out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

In a 2014 interview with the Westar Institute, an organization for research in religious studies, she said: “I have the honour of being the recipient of a death threat, a fatwa (death sentence) and hate mail. My name is number six on the list of the most hated Muslims in the world (according to an earnest blogger) and I plan to become number one.”

Undeterred by threats and insults, she soldiers on, a warrior for religious freedom and inter-religious harmony.

“The Canadian government urgently needs to re-establish the Office of Religious Freedom,” she said in an e-mail exchange with Convivium. “There is a sizeable population of Canadians of Pakistani origin who are Members of Parliament. They shy away from speaking about minority rights in Pakistan and must be encouraged to speak out more.”

Asked if the aid money that Canada gives to Pakistan should be conditional on addressing the root cause of faith-based violence, she said: “It is of utmost importance that the Canadian High Commission in Pakistan play a more active and audit-driven role to hold the Pakistani government accountable for the aid that they get from Canada.”

“We should have a more transparent system whereby Canadians at large can be educated on where their aid money is going and how the government is accounting for it,” she added. “This transparency is essential because we are dealing with governments that have massive human rights and corruption issues.”

The ball is in the Canadian government’s court. Will Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau pick it up and run with it?

Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation! 

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