By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
PHILADELPHIA – Approximately 200 members of Philadelphia’s Pakistani Christian community gathered at St. William Church in the Lawncrest section of the city on the evening of March 12 for a memorial Mass for Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister of Minorities, who was gunned down March 2 in Islamabad.
For the occasion, a large portrait of Bhatti was carried in procession and placed before the altar, and posters throughout the church reflected the sentiments for which he died – “Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Conscience, Freedom of Religion,” read one; while another had the plea, “Stop killing the Christians in Pakistan.”
“We have about 11 churches here; we have Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals and Catholics,” said Father Dominic Isaac, the coordinator for the Pakistani Apostolate in the Archdiocese and the homilist of the Mass.
“We are all together in this. Shahbaz Bhatti was a martyr who gave his life to remove Pakistan’s blasphemy law. He said his life was like a cross and that he understood Christ gave His life on the cross for humanity, peace and justice – and he was willing to do the same,” Father Isaac said.
Bhatti, 42, a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, was the first and only Christian in Pakistan’s federal cabinet. He was a lone voice in the government speaking out against the blasphemy law, which critics such as him maintain was used to persecute Christians and other religious minorities and even some Muslims. His stand on this issue made him a marked man, and the Pakistani Taliban has taken credit for his murder. Pakistani Christians believe his murder was really martyrdom.
Capuchin Father Thomas Betz, who was the celebrant at the Mass, commented in opening remarks, that “it was not a time to pray for the soul of the dead but rejoice that one of our own has practiced the words of Jesus – no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
“Brothers and sisters,” he said, “tonight we gather like our Christian forebears in the earliest days to remember a martyr and ask God, through the prayer of that martyr, to give us the grace of courage that we might live our faith in Jesus as the martyrs have done.”
For this particular congregation, Bhatti was not an abstract martyr from another continent. He was a personal friend who had visited Philadelphia and even had blood kinship with Sumaira Bhatti Gill, his niece who attended the service.
“I had the privilege of knowing him,” Father Betz said. “I told him 10 years ago he would be killed for what he was doing, but he said he would never stop. He gave his life for the Christians in Pakistan.”
Cornelius Mohsin, a Baptist who would see Bhatti at twice-annual meetings in Pakistan, said, “This is a great loss to the Pakistan Christian community. It was a personal loss and a national loss. We are afraid his mission will be very difficult now.”
The Christian League of Pakistan first invited Bhatti to Philadelphia 13 years ago, recalled Stewart John, a Presbyterian.
“It is really sad that a gentleman like Shahbaz Bhatti, who was selfless and kind and stood up for all people who cannot speak for themselves should be killed,” he said. “All Pakistani Christians are united in this memorial.”
Razwen Khan, also Presbyterian, recalled Bhatti’s visits to Philadelphia.
“We respected him so much,” he said. “The whole Christian community in the U.S., Canada and Pakistan is shocked by this.”
Farzana Dean, a member of the Pakistani Catholic community at St. William, added, “He was a teacher for all Pakistanis, and he was not afraid of the threats he was receiving.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.