Pakistani Christian official’s slaying sows fear, discord

March 26, 2011

For generations, this village in Punjab province has been a rare oasis of religious harmony. Muslims and Christians attend each other’s weddings and are buried in the same cemetery. Church bells and Islamic calls to prayer ring out from spires a few muddy streets apart. In recent years, a soccer tournament with mixed-faith teams became a regional attraction.

The man most identified with this achievement was Shabbaz Bhatti, the son of a local Catholic schoolmaster, who grew up to become a passionate advocate for minority rights and, two years ago, the first Christian member of the federal cabinet. When religious conflict flared elsewhere, Khushpur’s 5,000 residents felt shielded by Bhatti’s high-profile stature.

But since March 3, when Bhatti was gunned down by Islamic extremists in the capital, Islamabad, a jittery gloom has permeated his village and the poison of suspicion has begun to creep into people’s thoughts. At the soccer field last week, a sign said, “Play for Peace,” but a rifleman was posted to guard the afternoon match and not one Muslim player showed up.

“Shabbaz Bhatti taught us to hold our heads high, but now we feel we are not safe,” said a Christian player in his 20s named Shehzad. Asked about relations with young Muslims, he shook his head sadly. “There is a gulf between us now,” he said. “Things seem normal, but inside they don’t accept us. This incident has made them more powerful, and we both feel it.”

Bhatti’s slaying, which came amid growing attacks on religious minorities, has also opened rifts within the Christian community over how to respond. On Jan. 6, Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, a critic of Pakistan’s harsh Islamic blasphemy laws, was gunned down by his Muslim bodyguard. Since then, there have been scattered incidents of violence, including attacks on churches in the cities of Lahore and Hyderabad.

Some church officials are asking their members to turn the other cheek. Father Anjum Nazir, the parish priest in Khushpur, frowned in worried disapproval last Sunday when someone showed him a pamphlet for a protest in Lahore. “Throwing stones and burning things will do nothing to help our cause,” he said after Mass in the red brick church built a century ago by Italian missionaries. “Christ teaches us to pray for peace and harmony.”

Christian legislators and activists close to Bhatti are eager to take to the streets and demand rights for Pakistan’s estimated 20 million Christians. Unless new leaders quickly take his place, they warn that religious minorities — including Hindus, Sikhs and Ahmadis — will retreat into fearful shells as Islamist groups grow stronger.

‘We feel like orphans’

Christians in Pakistan have not always faced persecution. For decades, foreign missionaries ran Pakistan’s best schools and colleges. Discrimination grew in the 1980s under the “Islamization” campaign of the dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, but religious minorities found a patron in Benazir Bhutto, the liberal leader who became prime minister twice in the 1990s.

Bhutto was assassinated in 2007 and her widower, now President Asif Ali Zardari, named Bhatti minister of religious minority affairs. He has spoken repeatedly of the need to curb religious intolerance, but after Taseer’s slaying met with unexpected public approval, his government backed off from proposals to reform blasphemy laws, which are often used to persecute non-Muslims.

Now, with Bhatti’s death, the nation’s leading voice for religious minorities has been silenced. The government has reportedly decided to name his brother, Paul, to replace him in the cabinet, but no announcement has been made.

“We feel like orphans,” said Michael Javed, a provincial legislator from the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. “We receive constant threats. The extremists are well organized and supported by hidden hands. We are determined to carry on Shabbaz Bhatti’s mission, but we cannot do it alone,” he said at the APMA office in Rawalpindi. “No one has the courage to say the truth, or their body may be the next one lying in the street.”

‘Uncomfortable’ silence

It is not only the fear of extremist violence that holds such activists back, but also a more subtle chill emanating from the Muslim-majority society. This has coincided with a buildup of anti-American feelings and religious nationalism as hard-line clerics have cast Pakistan as a victim in the Western war on terrorism.

Signs of ostracism range from biased treatment on influential television talk shows to mourning ceremonies in which officials avoided using the word “martyr” to describe Bhatti. Businesses are buying religious insurance; a banner hung by a traders’ association in Islamabad said, “All blasphemers deserve to die.”

In a recent eulogy to Bhatti in Washington, Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani decried “an uncomfortable and unconscionable silence from the great majority of Pakistanis” after both killings. Yet gossip was spread about both men to justify their deaths and Pakistani experts and officials said a tendentious TV interview of Taseer in December contributed to the wave of religious emotion that led to his killing.

In contrast, Christian activists have displayed a prudent deference to Islam, and a forlorn hope that by showing sympathy for all Muslims, they can stem the tide of extremist intolerance. They say their worst fear is of being driven from society, and they are desperate to reassure the far larger Muslim community that they pose no threat.

Last week, after an evangelical pastor in Florida burned a copy of the Koran — part of a campaign that has enraged Muslims worldwide — the organizers of the Christian rights rally in Lahore changed its focus. Instead, their event Wednesday and other news conferences by Christian groups focused on condemning the Florida incident.

“Actions like the ones in Florida create trouble for us in Pakistan,” Javed said. “All Christians condemn what that priest did. We live in a Muslim country and we respect the Koran. We are not against the blasphemy law, only against people misusing it. But events like this really damage our cause.”

‘Born and bred together’

In Khushpur, Muslims are in the minority — a rarity in Pakistani communities — and they have long benefited from Catholic aid and leadership, which brought them services from literacy programs to utility lines. Since Bhatti’s death, they have been on guard against an extremist attack that would harm them by association, but they insist they will not forsake his memory.

“He was our leader, and his death was the death of our whole village,” said Mohammed Ramzan, a laborer in his 60s who was serving food at a Muslim mourning ceremony. The growing national discord between Christians and Muslims “won’t affect us,” he said. “Here we were born and bred together. If our leader was killed to drive us apart, we will not let it succeed.”

Pamela Constable covers immigration issues and immigrant communities. A former foreign correspondent for the Post based in Kabul and New Delhi, she also reports periodically from Afghanistan and other trouble spots overseas.
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