AFRICA/LIBYA - “The Countries that claim to respect human rights welcome Eritrean refugees from Tripoli”: new appeal from the Apostolic Vicar to Fides
Eritrea (Agenzia Fides) - “Help us to get the Eritrean refugees out of Libya. They are just people who want to live in peace” Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli in Libya tells Fides, making a new appeal for the estimated 2,000 Eritrean refugees who are in Tripoli (see Fides 28/02/2011).
Bishop Martinelli says on the status of the group of 54 Eritreans who will be welcomed by Italy: “The 54 Eritrean refugees with papers in order will depart in a week, or so I've been assured by the Italian authorities. These 54 are lucky to have the documents which allow them to leave, but all the others? I do not know if Italy could make an extra effort to welcome yet another hundred Eritreans and then perhaps distribute them around Europe.”
The Apostolic Vicar adds that “the 2,000 Eritrean refugees in Tripoli are living in homes of Libyan families, who accept them despite the difficulties. As a Church we are trying to pay rents. But there are problems with health. In particular, there are mothers with very small children who need milk and medical care. There is a religious sister that is handling these issues.”
“I hope that public awareness and sensitivity is open to the problems of these people who have no point of reference apart from the Church. I hope that other countries besides Italy, take these people's problem to heart. They can not stay in Libya because the situation is very precarious. They have not been threatened, but the problem is that there is no office open to obtain identity documents. The UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) has closed its office in Tripoli. The situation is shameful for these people who have no document certifying their identity. But where are their human rights? How can we declare that we respect human rights when we then trample on them with our 'civility'. I understand that we can not accommodate everyone who wants to come to Europe, but at least we could accept those most affected by the adversity,” said Bishop Martinelli.
As regards the situation of the city, Bishop Martinelli states that “Tripoli is calm. Outside the capital the situation is different, however. Here life is almost back to normal: different services are open, such as the post office and banks, where people go to pick up the 500 dinars promised by the Government.” (L.M.) (Agenzia Fides 2/3/2011)
Islamabad (Agenzia Fides) – Grief and terror within the Christian community in Pakistan: the Federal Minister for Religious Minorities, Catholic Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed this morning in Islamabad. Fides' local sources report that the Minister had left his home to go into the office. He was in the car with his niece and driver. He did not have an escort. Suddenly a small Suzuki car came up next to the Minister's car and and fired a shot at the window of the driver, to stop him. A group of armed bandits pulled the Minister out of the car and hit him with a hail of bullets fired from automatic weapons for about two minutes. The commando unit then fled. The driver took the Minister to the hospital in Islamabad, but Bhatti was already dead. Responsibility for the shooting has not taken officially, however, from initial investigations it appears that the attack can be attributed to Taliban groups who left leaflets signed "Tehrik-i-Taliban-Punjab” at the scene of the crime.
Local Fides sources wonder why the Minister, who was already the subject of public threats by terrorist groups such as Laskar e-Toiba (see Fides 4/12/2010), was left without an escort. Priests and sisters in Pakistan have not hesitated to define Bhatti as a “martyr”, someone who “gave his life in defending the rights of religious minorities, especially Christians.”
In a heated reaction, Peter Jacob, Secretary of the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace, a personal friend of Bhatti, tells Fides: “We are in a state of shock and panic: the Catholic community, all Christians, are traumatised by this latest murder. We feel bewildered and defenceless. This murder means that the Country is at the mercy of terrorists, who can afford to kill high-ranking personalities. We feel very vulnerable: they are more powerful than defenders of human rights and religious minorities. We strongly condemn this barbaric act. Now is the time of mourning, then we will decide what to do as Christians.”
Bhatti, 42, had been appointed Federal Minister for Religious Minorities in the recent Government reshuffle, a position he has held since 2008. He was born in the village of Khushpur near Faisalabad, in Punjab, known as “the Vatican of Pakistan”, as it is a village founded by the Dominican friars, which has brought forth many Pakistani priests, sisters and men and women religious.
In his work as a human rights activist and for religious minorities, Bhatti founded the “All Pakistan Minorities Alliance” and the “Christian Liberation Front”, organisations which are very active in civil society. He was a lieutenant in the struggle for the revision of the blasphemy law, which cost him his life. In recent days he had reassured Fides, in confidence, that the “Commission for the Revision of the blasphemy law”, ordered by President Ali Zardari under the guidance of Bhatti, was not an abandoned project, but continued away from the spotlight. Recently, he loved to say: “I burned my ships,” referring to a commitment that involved all of his existence, that he could not step away from. In a recent interview with Fides (see Fides 12/02/2011) he said he considered his service in politics as a “testimony of his faith in Christ.” (PA) (Agenzia Fides 2/3/2011)
ASIA/PAKISTAN - Bishops on Bhatti's murder: “A tragic example of the intolerant climate in which we live”
Lahore (Agenzia Fides) – “We condemn the assassination of the Catholic Minister for Religious Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti. We are devastated and deplore this anti-life gesture. This is a perfectly tragic example of the unsustainable climate of intolerance in which we live in Pakistan. We call on the Government, the institutions, the whole country to recognise and take decisions about these issues, because there must be an end to this situation, where violence prevails.” Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore and President of the Episcopal Conference of Pakistan made this statement to Fides, commenting on the murder of Minister Bhatti by a terrorist commando this morning in Islamabad.
The Bishops are preparing an official statement and have planned an emergency meeting to assess the situation and decide on a strategy for the future. On the one hand they want to protect the faithful, Christian leaders and all those who are working for respect for human rights and the revision of the blasphemy law (possible new targets for the extremists). On the other hand is the desire to “awaken” public opinion nationally and internationally to call for help to combat the terrorism that is devastating the Country.
Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad and Vice President of the Episcopal Conference agrees, telling Fides: “The murder of Minister Bhatti is a great tragedy, not just for the Christians in Pakistan but for the whole country, as he was a Federal Minister. Last month, a Muslim, the Governor of Punjab was killed, today Bhatti. We are alarmed: it is the sign of the fanaticism that indiscriminately affects all those who are committed to the defence of truth, justice and peace.”
Bhatti was originally from the village of Khushpur in the Diocese of Faisalabad. Bishop Coutts remembers him thus: “He was a genuine, transparent person, of great courage. I had great respect for him. He knew he was in danger, but he would not pull back. The village of Khushpur is in mourning and the most profound sorrow. We will pray for him intensely.” (PA) (Agenzia Fides 2/3/2011)
Rome (Agenzia Fides) - Of the population in Pakistan of 185 million inhabitants, 96% are Muslims, and 2% are Christians. Among these, Catholics are slightly more than one million. Christians, with Hindus and Sikhs (the remaining 2% of the population) live in a state of daily discrimination and social marginalisation.
Even before the partition between India and Pakistan (1947) - which gave birth to the nation – there were so-called “Dalits”, those outside the caste system according to the rigid social classification that exists in India. Their condition of subordination has not changed in the Republic of Pakistan. Religious minorities are discriminated against today in access to education, employment, and public office.
The Constitution of Pakistan written by the founder of the country, the Muslim Ali Jinnah, proclaimed the principle of equality of all citizens before the law, “without distinction of race or creed”. But since 1980, with the Government of dictator Zia-ul-Haq, the country has undergone a progressive Islamisation of society, law, politics, and education. In this context, the situation of minorities has deteriorated, mainly because of some measures such as the “blasphemy law” (Article 295b and 295c of the Penal Code) and the “Hudood Ordinances”, rules of criminal law based on Islamic law.
According to the 2009-2010 Report by the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace in Pakistan, currently “the trend of violent acts against religious minorities is growing”; the blasphemy law is Damocles' sword against minorities; freedom of religion “is reduced to a myth”, and “in the face of the Government's apathy, urgent action is needed to protect human rights.” Between 1987 (since it has been in force) and 2009, 1,032 people have been unjustly affected by the blasphemy law. Religious freedom has been gradually eroded: from 2005-2009 there are 622 registered cases - just the tip of the iceberg - of forced conversion from Christianity to Islam.
The Catholic Church has 7 Bishops (for six dioceses and an Apostolic Vicariate), 279 priests (including 127 religious priests), 76 men religious, 799 sisters, 53 lay missionaries and 702 catechists. The Church is very involved in schools and in social work, interreligious dialogue and in the defence of religious freedom and minority rights. (PA) (Agenzia Fides 2/3/2011)