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Bhatti killing pushes Pakistan closer to the brink

7 March 2011

By Jared Ferrie

The tragic murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minorities’ Minister, highlights the growing power of violent religious extremists who are pushing the state to the brink of complete failure. The assassination also shows just how far Pakistan has drifted from the ideals of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who is known as the “Father of the Nation”.

“You are free,” Jinnah told his people in a 1947 speech. “You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

The reality today is that Pakistan’s religious minorities are not free. In fact, they worship at great risk. Brutal attacks on Christians and Ahmaddiya among others are now commonplace, carried out by militants who are intolerant of any type of belief other than their own extreme version of Islam.

Jinnah’s vision of a secular government in Pakistan has, over decades, been ground into dust. Recent documents released by Wikileaks add further evidence to what has long been an open secret: powerful elements of the military and security services have nurtured extremist groups for years.

The legal system has also encouraged intolerance. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws carry a death penalty for those convicted of defaming the prophet Muhammad, thus elevating Islam above all other religions. Those laws, which are open to wide interpretation, have often been used to target members of religious minorities.

View a gallery of photos of minorities in Pakistan Bhatti advocated abolishing or at least amending the blasphemy laws, and he was murdered for it. In January, Punjab Provincial Governor Salman Taseer, another vocal critic of the laws, was also murdered. Bhatti’s killers, calling themselves the Pakistani Taliban, left pamphlets at the crime scene warning that “others who try to reform the blasphemy laws will meet the same fate.”

Bhatti was well aware of the danger to which he was exposing himself. Just two months before his death he taped a message that was to be released if he was assassinated. “I will prefer to die, following my principle and for the justice of my community rather to compromise on these threats,” said Bhatti, who was one of three Christian members of Parliament.

With two courageous campaigners for religious equality shot dead within two months of each other, who now will stand up against the rising tide of religious extremism? Pakistan’s government has shown little appetite for repealing the blasphemy laws, which embolden thugs and murderers who would deny religious minorities the fundamental human right to practice their faith.

In 2009, I visited Pakistan and interviewed members of the Christian minority who had suffered under the Taliban when the militants took over the Swat Valley. Ashar Dean, of the Peshawar diocese of the Catholic Church, recounted numerous incidents of attacks on Christians in Taliban-controlled areas. In order to escape persecution, he said, “They tried to hide themselves among the majority community.”

How far Pakistan has drifted from the state envisioned by Jinnah, which would grant freedom to all of its citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs. Powerful elements of the political and security establishment continue to actively support extremists in their violent persecution of minorities. Progressive members of the government have been intimidated into silence.

But silence is not an option if Pakistan wants to save itself from lawlessness that threatens to tear the country apart. The Pakistani authorities must send a message to extremists that attacks on religious minorities will not be tolerated. The authorities should do justice to the memories of Bhatti and Taseer. They should abolish the abhorrent blasphemy laws.

Jared Ferrie is Asia Editor of Minority Voices Newsroom and author of MRG’s 2009 report, Pakistan: Minorities at Risk in the Northwest.