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March 5, 2012 10:30 am

Pakistani Assassinations Reminder of Work to be Done

avatar by Irwin Cotler

Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's former Minority Affairs Minister. Photo: www.boinkie.blogspot.com.

One year ago this week, the world mourned the loss of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minority affairs minister who was tragically assassinated. Minister Bhatti was a courageous and heroic figure who literally put his life on the line in defence of religious freedom, equality and minority rights in Pakistan — and he had no illusions about the price he might pay for his courageous advocacy.

Indeed, when Minister Bhatti appeared before a Parliamentary committee last year, he told us that he was under threats from extremists for his efforts, especially with regard to the repeal of the blasphemy laws that had been used to suppress the Christian minority in Pakistan, and where the mere accusation of such behavoiur can incite hatred and even death. In fact, Minister Bhatti — Christian himself — told me afterwards that he was already under a fatwa death threat.

As I said on the occasion of his passing in the House, “Pakistan has lost a great and courageous son of its people and we have lost a great hero in the struggle for human rights. We honour his memory best by standing steadfast against hatred and extremism as he inspired us to do”. Indeed, that is what we must do.

This evening, while many will gather at a memorial in Mississauga with Paul Bhatti — Minister Bhatti’s brother who has since taken up his brother’s cause, and become a special advisor to the Prime Minister on Pakistan in the matter of minorities — we as Canadians must recommit ourselves to religious freedoms, something which millions seek around the globe.

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As a case study of the issue in Pakistan, the House unanimously adopted a motion last December in the matter of Ms.Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman imprisoned in Pakistan since 2009 on trumped-up charges of blasphemy simply because of her faith.

Ms. Bibi was arrested on June 14th, 2009 after being accused of contaminating drinking water simply because of her Christian faith. She was then severely beaten and taken to the police station where she was threatened with death unless she would renounce her faith and convert to Islam. Since her arrest and trial — devoid of any legality — Asia has been confined to a tiny cell, enduring cruel and unusual punishment. Indeed, she still runs the risk of arbitrary execution.

Ms. Bibi’s case is reflective of the systemic persecution facing Christian minorities in Pakistan, and elsewhere in the world. We must bear witness on behalf of those like Ms. Bibi, who cannot testify. We must act in defense on behalf of those whose lives are at risk and support those like Paul Bhatti who seek to improve their condition and lessen their plight.

Whether it be the Christian Copt minority in Egypt — itself under assault from extremists — or the Baha’i community in Iran — of which the leadership has been imprisoned and members of the faith are persecuted by the Government — religious minorities around the world are under assault from radical regimes. We must take notice, stand in solidarity with them, and hold the authors of their assaults to account.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Let us honour Shahbaz Bhatti’s memory by striving to commit ourselves to this notion for all peoples of all faiths, no matter where they reside, and to combating faith-based violence in all its forms.

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