The Corner

Honoring Shahbaz Bhatti, a Modern Martyr

Last spring, as a part of a congressional delegation, I met with leading Pakistani parliamentarians and officials to discuss legislative practices and issues of importance to our bilateral relationship. At one level, Pakistan prides itself on democratic ideals and is making some strides to strengthen democratic institutions. At another level, the potential for violence seethes below weak civil structures.

During that time, I requested a private meeting with Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s interior minister for minorities and the highest-ranking Christian in the government. I was deeply impressed by his youthful, unassuming, humble demeanor. He spoke to me about Pakistan’s blasphemy law, a relatively recent law that is often used for personal vendettas aimed at minority Muslim sects and Christians. He suggested designating a three-judge panel for blasphemy trials, and proposed that one of these judges represent one of Pakistan’s religious minorities. He also asked that U.S. scholarship programs include representatives of Pakistan’s minority communities, who are routinely excluded from such opportunities for personal achievement.

As a Catholic, Mr. Bhatti shared with me that Pope Benedict XVI had requested a private meeting with him when a Pakistani delegation visited the Vatican. He pointed out the long history of the Catholic Church’s involvement in building educational and health-care institutions in Pakistan. He was clearly a man of faith, courageously standing for the universal ideas of justice and dignity. He did so with meekness, without bravado, making no loud demands as a political aggressor.

Our meeting took place off to the side of the building’s cafeteria. Though the Pakistani parliament is a heavily secured facility, for a moment it crossed my mind that as a foreign U.S. official, our appearing together in such a public space might draw unwanted attention.

On March 2, Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated.

That day, as I was concluding a speech on the perilous situation in the Middle East — the opportunities, the dangers, the extraordinary and hope-filled change sweeping lands — the report of Shahbaz’s death came across my Blackberry. I am certain my face went ashen. I told the crowd of Nebraska visitors to Washington that my colleague had just been killed.

Although I didn’t know him well, and our time together was brief, he was not just a political acquaintance. We shared a meaningful conversation about permanent things — that which is higher, that which lasts. Seeing him through our shared faith, I consider him my brother who was killed.

It is my hope that the people of Pakistan will honor him by honoring the ideals for which he stood. He was a noble witness and a modern political martyr.

Jeff Fortenberry is a Republican congressman from Nebraska.

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