Speech to the International Religious Freedom Association
March 2, 2015
Four years ago today my friend Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban steps from his mother’s home in Islamabad. I wanted to share a few personal thoughts on this anniversary.
Many people knew and respected Shahbaz for his work. For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he was a prominent Pakistani Christian who courageously advocated for the rights of members of Pakistan's religious minorities. Shahbaz was sworn in by the Pakistani President in November 2008 as the Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs. After assuming the position, Shahbaz worked bravely to see the repeal or reform of Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy laws, which earned him numerous death threats. Before his assassination, he had just been reappointed to the cabinet, something he referred to me as being a “miracle.” It energized him to press on, despite increasing resistance and threats to his life.
I know at times he was afraid – he told me as much on occasion. Yet he forged ahead to squeezed every ounce out of being a religious freedom advocate in the federal cabinet to make a difference.
Shahbaz was having an impact. And that is why he was killed by the Pakistani Taliban on March 2nd. Now four years after his life was taken, at a time when religious freedom is under attack worldwide, will his passing challenge us to do more in this struggle for freedom of religion or belief?
I believe that for those of us involved in this cause we can best remember Shahbaz by making his death matter. While in Washington or other western cities, we can feel distant from the people we are trying to help. But as we learned with Shahbaz, and see regular reminders of today, this work matters. It can literally be life or death. At a time with rising violations of this fundamental freedom around the world, we must redouble our efforts to make a difference and carry on his work. We must all insist that religious freedom for all people be respected.
International religious freedom is often sidelined and our efforts sometimes fracture. Yet I hope we can all move forward together, remembering those who have gone before and those persecuted today – be they in Pakistan, Nigeria, China, Burma, Iraq/Syria, or elsewhere. Let us push towards a day when everyone everywhere can enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It’s a goal that may seem impossible now, but it will only be impossible if we don’t try.