Article for St. Catharines Standard newspaper by Peter Youngren.
The brutal killing last week of Pakistan’s only Christian government minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, for which the Pakistan Taliban has claimed responsibility, hit close to home. Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minorities, was a friend and on several occasions he helped World Impact Ministries, the organization I lead, to obtain permission for Gospel Campaigns in a country where 97% are Muslims. A co-worker emailed, “This is the darkest day for freedom of religion in the history of Pakistan”.
Bhatti, 42, was ambushed in broad daylight by Muslim extremists as he traveled through a residential district, having just left his mother’s home. Before escaping the scene of the crime—and after firing as many as 30 bullets into Bhatti’s vehicle—the assassins made sure, through leaflets left behind, that the world knew why the killing occurred; Bhatti was paying the price for opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The leaflets also warned anyone opposing this law, which makes criticizing Mohammed or Islam a crime punishable by death, that they would suffer the same fate.
Bhatti ominously told a British newspaper in January that extremists had threatened him, but he was ready to die, “I follow the cross, and I am ready to die for a cause, I am living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights,” he said. In an interview with the Pakistan Christian Post, Bhatti stated, “I received a call from the Taliban commander, and he said, ‘If you will bring any changes in the blasphemy law and speak on this issue, then you will be killed.’”
Controversy over the blasphemy law has been stirred since Asia Bibi, 45, an illiterate farm worker, and the only Christian woman in her village, was sentenced to hang. She was accused of the blasphemy crime after defending her religious beliefs when several women in her majority-Muslim village questioned her faith. In a brief interview from jail Bibi stated, ”In the village they tried to put a noose around my neck, so that they could kill me”. She now also has a price on her head, as a radical cleric has promised 500,000 Pakistani rupees ($5,800) to anyone prepared to “finish her”.
Bhatti didn’t shy away from taking a public stand in support of Bibi and against this draconian law, and for this he has now paid the ultimate price, but he is not alone. Earlier this year Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of the state of Punjab, was assassinated by Islamic militants, who openly stated that they were acting to avenge the governor’s opposition to the blasphemy law. Taseer and Bhatti stand in contrast to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, the former president, who was assassinated in 2007. Zardari has refused to reform the blasphemy law or to pardon Bibi.
Can we do anything? Contact the Pakistani embassies in the United States and Canada and mention your concern about Asia Bibi’s death sentence, blog and write letters to newspapers and engage Muslim friends to do likewise. Remember most Muslims find extremism as abhorrent as Christians do.
Meanwhile World Impact Ministries postponed our Gospel Campaign, which was scheduled for later this month. Why plan a Gospel program in Pakistan in the first place? For one, I don’t think Jesus belongs to any one religion, He is for the world. Though our views on Christ differ, Islam and Christianity are the only major world religions that hold Jesus in a supreme position. According to Islam’s holy book, the Quaran, Jesus was born of a virgin, and is coming back to judge the world; he is a healer, the Messiah and the only sinless prophet. That’s still a long way from the Christian faith that Jesus is the Beloved Son of God, but it’s a start. Muslims and Christians should be able to dialogue. Why not start with your Muslim neighbor.