ROME – On the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani government official known for his advocacy for religious minorities, the country’s top Catholic leader praised the politician as a champion of human and minority rights.

“The memory of Shahbaz is so strong, he was one of the finest Christian leaders we had. We miss him,” said Cardinal Joseph Coutts, archbishop emeritus of Karachi, in a video tribute for the commemoration of Bhatti’s death.

“We were so confident that something more would have been achieved. Yet we live in a society – it’s not just the government, it’s also society, it’s the culture – in which a lot of extremism has been breeding and is still there, but the memory of Shahbaz gives us hope to carry on, because there are problems everywhere and we cannot keep silent,” Coutts said.

Bhatti, a Catholic and the lone Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, was assassinated in his car on March 2, 2011, after leaving his mother’s house.

The first Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs in Pakistan, Bhatti was a known outspoken critic of his country’s infamous blasphemy laws and was a vocal advocate for the rights of religious minorities, including Christians.

In 2010 he came to the defense of Asia Bibi, an illiterate Catholic farm laborer  sentenced to death under those blasphemy laws who spent a decade in prison before eventually being freed after Pakistan came under intense international pressure.

A cause for Bhatt’s beatification was opened in 2016, as soon as the mandatory five-year waiting period after a candidate’s death had expired.

“All of us in Pakistan, whether Christians or people of other religions, received a severe shock when we got the news” that Bhatti had been assassinated, Coutts said, noting that he was “a great person loved by so many.”

Coutts’s message was recorded as part of a virtual commemorative event for the 10th anniversary of Bhatti’s death organized by the Religious Freedom Institute, launched in 2011 as a project of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center.

Coutts, who served as archbishop of Karachi from 2012-2021, said he had known Bhatti since his days as a student.

As a student, Bhatti “was not involved in politics, it wasn’t really a part of his life, although he was a social activist and greatly concerned about human rights,” Coutts said, noting that it was only later “that friends convinced him to join one of the leading political parties precisely so that he could continue this work at a higher level.”

Once he had joined the Pakistan Peoples Party in 2002, he rose quickly through the ranks and just six years later was named Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs.

“I know he was well-respected among religious minorities, the non-Muslims, but also by many Muslim parliamentarians, politicians, and his own friends,” Coutts said, calling Bhatti “a man of vision.”

“It was very clear from an early age, whenever he saw there was discrimination taking place against religious minorities, he wanted to do something about it,” he said.

Differently than the extremism that was already seeded in Pakistani culture at the time, Bhatti “wasn’t a violent man, he didn’t talk about attacking others. He just wanted to highlight that point and wanted to see everybody in Pakistan living according to the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who assured us in the early days, already in 1947, that we would be equal citizens in a free country, in a democratic country,” the cardinal said.

One of Bhatti’s main goals, Coutts said, was to ensure that all religious minorities in the country “be recognized as equal and fair citizens of Pakistan. This is what he was working for.”

It was because of his advocacy in this regard, and his vocal criticism of Pakistan’s notorious anti-blasphemy laws that Bhatti was killed Coutts said, noting that these laws are “being misused even now.”

Closing his message, Coutts said that, “I would just say thank you Shahbaz, 10 years later we remember you, we pray for you, and we pray that what you wanted to change, we may be able to change, and have a fair and just country to live in.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen