Calling for Freedom in Pakistan

Ecumenical, Interreligious Groups Draw Attention to Blasphemy Laws

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ROME, MARCH 12, 2012 ( The anniversary of the death of Shahbaz Bhatti has given strength to voices calling for religious liberty in Pakistan.

Aid to the Church in Need reported on a concert Saturday in Trafalgar Square calling for religious freedom in Pakistan, and remembering Bhatti who gave his life for that cause.

The concert followed the presentation of a petition at 10 Downing Street calling for changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which impose sentences including execution and life imprisonment for offences against Islam.

The documents bearing the names of more than 6,000 people were presented at Number 10 by an ecumenical delegation which included Alan Craig of the Christian Peoples Alliance and John Pontifex, from Aid to the Church in Need.

Pontifex, who met Shahbaz Bhatti, said: “For him, the Christian faith, [and] the freedom to express your religion legitimately without undue let or hindrance, was a cause not just worth fighting for – it was a cause worth dying for.”

Bhatti, Pakistan’s first federal minister for minority affairs, was shot dead in March 2011 while travelling to work in Islamabad.

His death followed a high-profile campaign calling for pardon for Asia Bibi, Pakistan’s first woman to be sentenced to death under the country’s blasphemy laws. Bibi is still awaiting her execution.

The visit to the Prime Minister’s residence on Saturday preceded the three-hour concert in Trafalgar Square raising awareness about human rights violations in Pakistan.

Speakers included Imam Dr Hargey of the Oxford Islamic Congregation, Reformist Muslim activist Irtshad Manji and Ranbir Singh of the Hindu Human Rights Movement.

Tributes to Shahbaz Bhatti from Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien, the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, and Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton, chairman of the International Affairs department of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, were also read out at the rally.

Sending his blessing to the gathered assembly Cardinal O’Brien said: “I add my voice to yours calling for real justice for Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan who have been accused of blasphemy.”

He added: “Shahbaz Bhatti was truly a witness, a martyr, and may we also have the courage to testify to what we believe in our own lives as he did.”

The event was organised by the British Pakistani Christian Association in conjunction with Aid to the Church in Need, a charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians.

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