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Top Pakistan brass honours memory of Catholic minister

ISLAMABAD (SE): Two events in the Pakistan capital of Islamabad at the beginning of March may indicate that a new breeze is blowing through the corridors of parliament and the presidential palace in regards to the status of non-Muslims, and religious and ethnic minority groups in the volatile state.

On March 2, the anniversary of the assassination of the former minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, the president of the country, Asif Ali Zardari, together with the prime minister, Yusuf Gilani, members of parliament, cabinet members, diplomats and officials from the public service, attended a memorial ceremony for the man the Catholic bishops of Pakistan want proclaimed as a martyr for the faith.

AsiaNews reported Gilani as saying that the government is committed to the welfare of all minorities in the country and took the opportunity to announce some new projects and policies aimed at bettering their situation.

He pointed out what he called two important achievements of the late minister, which have served to bring some improvement to the situation, explaining that the four seats in the senate reserved for minorities and the five per cent quota in public service employment can be largely attributed to the work of the Catholic politician.

The ceremony was organised by the brother of the assassinated minister, Paul Bhatti, who has been appointed to take on the responsibilities of his brother, even though he is not a member of the cabinet.

Zardari pointed out that Shahbaz Bhatti spent his life fighting for the cause of the downtrodden and marginalised sections of society, particularly members of minority groups.

He added that he will be remembered as a man of great personal courage and conviction, saying, “In the pursuit of this struggle, Shahbaz Bhatti refused to be deterred, despite threats to his life.”

Zardari continued, “Today, while we pay homage to the late Shahbaz Bhatti, we also reiterate our resolve to [follow] the principles and guidelines of our religion, the constitution and the teachings of the founder of the nation (Mohammad Ali Jinnah) to ensure the protection of the rights of minorities and marginalised sections of society.”

The chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, said at the ceremony, “The blood of martyrs and those committed to a tolerant, democratic, pluralist Pakistan that respects, rather than allows the murder of its minorities, will not go in vain.”

On the same day, Masses and prayer vigils were held in Faisalabad for the repose of the soul of the 32-year-old Bhatti, as well as in his home village of Khushpur, in the Punjab, Lahore, Multan, Karachi and elsewhere.

In the capital Islamabad, where Bhatti’s body was riddled with 30 bullets on March 2 last year as he was leaving his home, memorial services ended with a torchlight procession that passed by the scene of the crime.

Political commentators say that the presence of the president and top brass from the Pakistan government is significant, as to date, authorities have mostly tried to cover up the affair by blaming the murder on a family dispute and even on financial wrangles.

It is still unclear who carried out the attacks, but few doubt Pakistani extremists were involved.

In a break with tradition, on March 6, at a ceremony in the presidential palace in Islamabad, Zardari awarded two missionaries, Father Robert McCulloch and Sister John Berchmans Conway, with the highest honour that can be given to a non-Pakistani national, the Sitara-e-Quaid-e-Azam Award.

Recent years have seen a string of Muslim recipients, but this year, the president broke with this custom and chose an Australian priest and an Irish sister for the award that recognises the dream of Ali Jinnah for a Pakistan that embraces its religious and cultural diversity.

“I see the award as a public statement by the government of Pakistan that it rejects the current stream of anti-Christian feeling being pushed by Islamic fundamentalists and extremists,” Father McCulloch told the Sunday Examiner.

Meanwhile, the bishops of Pakistan have renewed their call to the Vatican to have Bhatti declared a martyr for the faith, saying he gave his life for the values of the faith that he held dear to his heart.

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