Features

Assassination of a dream

Pakistan | The death of Benazir Bhutto levels the aspirations of political reformers and religious minorities

Issue: "The plots thicken," Jan. 12, 2008

Liaquat Garden is a fit resting place for former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Its cemetery, filled with national sentiment as the burial ground now of three prime ministers, sits near the heart of old Rawalpindi with its souks and narrow streets. Lined off by ancient trade-and invasion-routes, the garden also fronts a historic Christian college dating from the British era.

All this was Bhutto, 54, universally known as the "daughter of Pakistan," whose public life encompassed tribal Muslim customs and modern secular aspirations. She attended a Catholic convent school and Harvard, but yielded to tradition in agreeing to an arranged marriage. Her street-level rhetoric struck chords with millions of Pakistan's poor, yet she owned homes in London, Dubai, and New York.

Her life represented a sort of arrhythmic journey between the ancient and the modern. It was a pilgrimage many Pakistanis wanted to be on, too. Her death Dec. 27, following a combination shooting-bombing attack at a campaign rally in Liaquat Garden, was for them not only the death of a dream. Many, particularly persecuted Christians, fear it also signals an end to already dwindling freedoms.

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When Bhutto returned to Pakistan last October, she pledged to oppose Pakistan's blasphemy laws, as she had done when she was prime minister. Under those laws, anyone who defiles the name of Muhammad will be fined and may face life in prison or the death penalty. Defiling the prophet's name has a broad definition and often rests on the testimony of one or two witnesses.

Bhutto also told leaders of the country's 3.5 million Christians that being a Christian should not be a bar to participating in her populist PPP party's election platform. And just two weeks before her death, she issued a pointed public statement protesting the kidnapping of Rejinald Humayun, general secretary of the Churches of Pakistan and a missionary doctor for over 20 years. He served as medical superintendent of Bannu Christian Hospital in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, and was taken by armed men in the region. In her statement, Bhutto said "the kidnapping of the missionaries performing humanitarian works only brought a bad name to the country on the one hand and created difficulties for the suffering citizens by depriving them from needed medical help on the other." She asked the Musharraf regime to "wake up to its basic responsibility of protecting the life and property of the people."

In recent years under Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who took over the presidency in a 1999 coup, minority freedoms have withered. Increased use of blasphemy laws has targeted Christians in some jurisdictions. In 2004 the Murree Christian School near Rawalpindi was forced to close after government forces did not protect it against attacks and threats from Islamic militants. More recently, last August a pastor in Islamabad and his wife were shot dead. And three Christians were murdered in the north in December-all with little response from the Musharraf government.

"After four years [in office], many people started to doubt Gen. Musharraf," said Victor Gill, a Pakistani-American commentator who headed Christian Voice of Pakistan. Musharraf's inability to capture key al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants, despite U.S. aid of $10 billion since 2001, by many was viewed with suspicion even before he cracked down on the country's judiciary and imposed emergency rule late last year. Many Pakistanis believe he is playing a "double game," said Gill-on the one hand using U.S. aid to build the military (in the only Islamic country with nuclear weapons), while "keeping the terrorist shop open" as a tip to Pakistan's radical elements, and as a siphon requiring continuous Western support: "He will not finish terrorism, they said, and the only one left who trusts him is George W. Bush."

Two other Pakistani Christian leaders, who asked not to be named because they fear their lives in Pakistan will be in danger, agreed with that assessment. They say Christian leaders believed Bhutto could provide an experienced if controversial alternative to the years of increasing dictatorship. "She came out more clearly against terrorism and also saw herself in a fight against military corruption," said Gill. "But she was clear-hearted, and she was very spiritual. She would ask you, if she knew you were a Christian, to pray for her."

Gill met Bhutto during her decade-long, self-imposed exile from Pakistan, after a tangle of corruption charges forced her from office. Gill hosted her during trips to the United States, where he was able to introduce her to U.S. Christian leaders and charitable organizations. The two last communicated via email Oct. 18, the day she returned to Pakistan in a power-sharing proposition U.S. diplomats helped to arrange with Musharraf that quickly fell apart.

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