Canadians call for religious freedom after Shahbaz Bhatti's death
By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
OTTAWA (CCN)--The March 2 assassination of Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti brought condemnation from political and religious leaders in Canada and calls for a robust support for religious freedom.
Bishop Pierre Morissette of the Diocese of Saint-Jerome, the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), wrote a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper stating that "freedom of (religion) and freedom of conscience are at the very heart of all human liberties and freedoms.”
“Because of this, and in the name of justice and tolerance, the Catholic Bishops of Canada encourage your government to ensure that full protection for religious freedom and freedom of conscience are clearly articulated as an essential part of Canada’s own foreign policy," he wrote. “We also ask that you promote and articulate this not only at international meetings but also in our nation’s dealings with other nations, especially in the Middle East and the Far East,” he wrote.
The letter commended the Prime Minister, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon for their condemnation of the assassination.
In the House of Commons March 2 Harper called Bhatti “a courageous defender of human rights.”
“He was recently in my office,” he told the House. “He knew that his life was in jeopardy in his fight against the notorious blasphemy laws and his defence of religious freedom.”
“We call on Pakistani authorities to pursue justice for the killers of minister Bhatti and also to ensure that they continue the fight for religious freedom for both non-Muslims and Muslims alike,” he said, to a standing ovation from both sides of the chamber.
Harper was responding to a call from Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff to join in the “shock, outrage, and anger” on his side of the House. Liberal MP Robert Oliphant told the House Bhatti’s brother Peter, who lives in Canada, had asked him to call on the government to “compel the government of Pakistan to protect minority communities.”
“He has also asked for special consideration for those whose lives are in grave danger seeking refuge in Canada,” Oliphant said.
Kenney, who had recently hosted Shahbaz Bhatti when he was in Ottawa in early February, spoke of losing a close friend.
"I was just speaking to him this week, just received an e-mail from him yesterday,” Kenney told journalists. “I'm really quite frankly devastated by this."
"My condolences go to his family and all the religious minorities in Pakistan."
In a statement, Kenney said Bhatti, as the first Christian to hold a cabinet post in the Pakistani government, “understood intimately the importance of protecting religious and ethnic minorities.”
“In his too short life, he worked tirelessly to defend religious freedom and human rights in Pakistan and around the world, not least through his public condemnation of his country's blasphemy laws,” Kenney said. “His murder demonstrates just how courageous he was in this campaign.”
"When I saw him last month, I was struck by how resigned he was about his expected martyrdom. He told me that he would not marry, because he did not want to leave a widow or orphans behind when that time came.”
Kenney said the government of Canada called on Pakistan to “prevent of abuse of laws criminalizing blasphemy” and issued condolences “to all who knew and loved Shahbaz Bhatti. I offer them to the people of Pakistan as well. We will miss his courage and leadership."
Cannon said he was “moved by Minister Bhatti’s great courage.”
“We are appalled by this cowardly attack against a brave individual who had the courage to speak out against extremists in Pakistan,” Cannon said in a statement. “We urge Pakistan to protect all those who find the courage to speak out against the country’s controversial blasphemy laws and to bring to justice the perpetrators of this heinous crime.”
“We continue to call on the Government of Pakistan to prevent the abuse of the blasphemy laws, which restrict freedom of religion and expression and have disproportionately targeted religious minorities."
“The Government of Canada will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who defend human rights around the world.”
Canada’s bishops said they would be sharing their condolences with brother bishops in Pakistan. “As well, we recommit ourselves to do all we can to encourage interfaith dialogue, collaboration and respect, both in Canada and abroad.”
“Unfortunately, one of the current challenges to this is the persecution and intolerance being directed against Christians in a number of countries.”
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) also called on governments around the world to honor Bhatti’s memory by “continuing to defend the rights of religious minorities.”
The EFC commends Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari for creating the Ministry for Minority Affairs, for appointing a minister from a religious minority community, and for forcefully condemning the assassination of Minister Bhatti.”
“The EFC urges the Government of Pakistan to honour the work and memory of Minister Bhatti by ensuring that another strong advocate for minorities be quickly appointed to carry on his work.”
The EFC quoted from a video that Bhatti made to be released if he were assassinated.
“I am speaking for the oppressed, marginalized and persecuted Christians and other minorities. These Taliban threaten me, but I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his whole life for us," Bhatti said. "I know what is meaning of cross, and I’m following of the cross, and I’m ready to die for a cause, I’m living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights.”