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Remember Those Who Have Died For Religious Freedom

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SHAHBAZ BHATTI CANDLE
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As Toronto was getting ready in the first week of March to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Pakistan Minority Minister Shahbaz Bhatti's assassination, the Government of Pakistan hanged a man, Mumtaz Qadri, for the brutal murder of Punjab province's governor, Salman Taseer.

The murderer of Salman Taseer met his fate in Pakistan. Perhaps this was a way for Pakistan's army elite and politicians to deliver a message to official bodyguards that no one would be spared if they killed bosses. Taseer was shot dead by his bodyguard on Jan. 4, 2011, over his stance against Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws.

However, there is no such message for Shahbaz Bhatti's murderers, since Bhatti belonged to Pakistan's poor Christian community. Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead in Pakistan about two months after Taseer on March 2, 2011.

Bhatti happened to visit Canada just few weeks before he was gunned down by Taliban in Islamabad.

Just after his visit to Ottawa, Canada's then-minister for citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism issued a statement that read, "Over the past two days I have had the great honour of hosting Pakistan's brave Minister of Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti... We expressed our sincere condolences to Minister Bhatti over the recent assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, and reiterated Canada's opposition to the abuse of blasphemy laws."

In the following year, 2012, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird presented the 2012 John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award to the late Shahbaz Bhatti.

The same organization held a 5th Martyrdom anniversary of Shahbaz Bhatti recently. The ceremony was attended by Liberal MP Raj Grewal, Conservative MP Garnett Genuis and NDP MPP Jagmeet Singh, as well as Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, the chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, church leaders, family members, friends and representatives from all walks of life.

Shahbaz Bhatti's brother, Peter Bhatti, a Canadian and chairman of International Christian Voice, said at the event that Pakistan cannot continue with extremism, religious bigotry and hatred.

Pakistan's consul general in Toronto, Asghar Ali Golo, also attended the meeting and said that a culture of intolerance was cultivated in Pakistan after the U.S. supported jihadists against the Soviet Union.

However, he didn't say a word whether Pakistan would abolish its notorious blasphemy law.

Dr. Swett addressed the community and spoke of the impact martyr Shahbaz Bhatti had on the human rights and religious freedom community in the United States. She spoke of the many challenges that Pakistan is facing in regards to the intolerance and inequality that has plagued the nation as a whole.

She spoke of Shahbaz Bhatti's integrity and conviction in fighting for religious freedom in Pakistan and encouraged the community to follow his example.

Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett hoped that Canada would maintain the status of office of religious freedom.

In the same context, former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the establishment of Office of Religious Freedom in Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama'at headquarters in Vaughan in 2013, where he talked about Shahbaz Bhatti and he stated, "I am privileged, in the course of my service as prime minister, to encounter many, extraordinary individuals and, from time to time, even among all of these extraordinary people, someone is exceptional... one such person I met in my office on Parliament Hill in 2011, he was the Minister of Minorities of Pakistan, Shahbaz Bhatti. He worked tirelessly to defend the vulnerable not only his fellow Christians, but also Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadi Muslims, and all other minorities. He did so knowing that it placed him under a constant and imminent threat to his life. He was an honourable and humble man."

The future of the office of religious freedom is though uncertain.

In a way, memories of Pakistan's assassinated Christian leader recalls the importance of Office of Religious Freedom.

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