Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani cabinet minister assassinated yesterday, told a Canadian politician on a visit to Ottawa last month that he expected to be killed and asked for help to be extended to his family after he was dead.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told Maclean’s he experienced, during his conversations with Bhatti in early February, “a truly eerie feeling” that Pakistan’s minister of minorities was living “under the shadow of death.”
The threat to Bhatti—the only Christian in President Asif Ali Zardari’s cabinet—was no secret. Yet he told Kenney that his pleas for more security had been ignored, which prompted Kenney to urge him not to return to Pakistan until he was given more protection.
Bhatti was almost certainly shot by Muslim extremists over his calls for changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, a strict prohibition against speaking against the prophet Muhammed, which is used as a pretext for persecuting religious minorities, including Christians.
In January, Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province and another courageous advocate of changing the blasphemy law, was killed by his own government-employed bodyguard.
It was Taseer’s death that led Bhatti to travel a few weeks ago to Europe, the U.S. and Canada, seeking international support for his advocacy of human rights for religious minorities in Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim country of 180 million people, where Christians make up less than 5 per cent of the population.
An edited transcript of my interview yesterday with Kenney:
Q. You hosted Shahbaz Bhatti in Ottawa on Feb. 5-6. How did that visit come about?
A. When Salman Taseer was murdered, the jihadi organizations said, One down, two to go. The two other top targets for them became Shahbaz Bhatti and Sherry Rehman. Rehman is the former minister of communications and friend of Benazir Bhutto. She had introduced a bill in the Pakistan house of assembly to fundamentally change the blasphemy laws. She has since withdrawn the bill out of fear. We invited [Bhatti] to Ottawa essentially as an expression of solidarity and support for religious minorities in Pakistan.
Q. What did he tell you on the visit about his situation?
A. While he was here he explained to us that he was not being given adequate or additional security, even after the assassination of Governor Taseer. He said he was deeply concerned about this. He even asked us to lobby the Pakistani government to provide additional security.
I said, If you don’t have sufficient security, you mustn’t go back, you’re putting yourself in imminent danger. He said, I know that, but I have no choice but to go back and support my brother and sisters. And he said, When they kill me, please do what you can to take care of my family. He told me this three weeks ago.
I had this truly eerie feeling being around him of being in the presence of someone under the shadow of death. There was no doubt in his mind that he was going back to face potentially lethal violence. It was only for him a matter of when and not if.”
Q. You knew him somewhat before these conversations, didn’t you?
A. We have common friends in human rights circles. I met him in January 2009 when I traveled to Islamabad. I spent the better part of a day with him there. He was extraordinarily generous. Part of the focus for my trip was advocating on behalf of religious minorities. Extraordinarily brave man. We’ve kept in touch, met at a couple of conferences.
Q. Beyond his public persona, how did he strike you?
A. There was no artifice about him. He was capable of being joyful and had quite a lively sense of humour, but very, very earnest, I guess I’d say. He was more demonstrably spiritual than most Catholics. After we had a private meeting he always wanted to pray.
But wasn’t narrowly sectarian as a Christian leader. When I met him in Islamabab he emphasized the importance of economic development programs for religious minorities in general. One of the reasons they are vulnerable is that they are often very poor. He was talking about micro-loan programs for all of these communities. He always talked about the Sikhs, the Hindus, the Ahmadiyyas, and not just the Christian community.
He was a very big-hearted person. One of the few political people I’ve met in whom I never saw a flicker of malice.