Pope Francis leads an audience with members of the Missione Shahbaz Bhatti association at the Vatican Nov. 30. Bhatti, a Christian, was the Pakistani minister of minorities who was assassinated in 2011. (CNS, via Vatican Media)

By Junno Arocho Esteves
Catholic News Service

Servant of God Shahbaz Bhatti
Headshot of Shahbaz Bhatti from the Pakistan National Assembly roster. (Courtesy of the Pakistan National Assembly/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Born: Sept. 9, 1968 in Lahore, Pakistan
Founded Pakistan Christian Liberation Front: 1985
Appointed Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs: Nov. 2, 2008
Killed: March 2, 2011
Named Servant of God: March 2, 2016

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Commemorating the witness of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pope Francis expressed his hope that the Pakistani Catholic’s death will be a source of inspiration and hope for persecuted Christians.

Speaking to members of the “Missione Shahbaz Bhatti” association Nov. 30, the pope said the group can help overcome barriers and create “dialogue, understanding and reconciliation” among different people and different faiths.

“One of the fruits of the sufferings of Christians is the multiplication of groups and associations — like yours — that build bridges of fraternity throughout the world, overcoming differences in language, culture and sometimes even religion,” he said.

Bhatti, who served as Pakistan’s minority affairs minister, was gunned down in 2011 after he said he would seek the reform of blasphemy laws to stop the laws from being misused to persecute innocent Christians.

On Oct. 31, a three-member court bench set aside the death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Catholic convicted of blasphemy, and ordered her release from prison, reported ucanews.com. Bhatti openly advocated for the release of Bibi, who was sentenced to death in 2010 for violating Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which makes insulting Muhammad a capital offense. Her ordeal of Bibi began in June 2009 when she was accused of insulting Muhammad, the founder of Islam, after Muslim co-workers objected to her drinking from a common water supply because she is a Christian.

Christian women hold pictures of Shahbaz Bhatti, the slain Pakistani minister of minorities, as they demand a sentence for his killers during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan, April 6, 2011. (Athar Hussain/CNS, Reuters)
A nun holds a picture of Shahbaz Bhatti, the slain Pakistani minister for minorities, during a candlelight vigil in Lahore, Pakistan, March 12, 2011. Bhatti, the country’s only Christian government minister, was killed March 2, 2011, after challenging a law that stipulates death for insulting Islam. (Mohsin Raza/CNS, via Reuters)

After Bhatti’s assassination, then Bishop Anthony Lobo of the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, who died in 2013, told the Vatican’s missionary news agency Fides in 2012 that he believed Bhatti to be a martyr.

Bhatti, “although he had little desire to so … decided to play an active part in politics in order to protect the country’s Christians and other minorities,” Bishop Lobo said. “A man of great commitment he decided not to marry. He lived a life of celibacy. He had no possessions and saw his activity as a service. I believe that Clement Shahbaz Bhatti was a dedicated lay Catholic martyred for his faith.”

The cause for Bhatti’s canonization formally began five years later in March 2016, the minimum amount of time after an individual’s death that a cause can be opened, by the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi.

The pope paid tribute to Bhatti and said he was pleased “to know that today he is loved and esteemed by many in Pakistan and that his sacrifice is bearing fruits of hope.”

He also encouraged the association to continue to proclaim the Gospel and aid “victims of false accusations” and to continue in the “fight against poverty and modern slavery.”

“May your distinctive sign always be that which shines in the witness of Shahbaz Bhatti and of so many other martyrs of our time, namely the humble and courageous faith in the Lord Jesus and the ability to put love where there is hatred,” the pope said.