20/06/2012 07:25 BST | Updated 19/08/2012 06:12 BST

The Unsung hero of Pakistan's Struggle for Pluralism

Earlier this month, in Sacred Heart Cathedral, Lahore, a memorial service took place for one of Pakistan's unsung heroes. Among the hundreds in attendance was a disparate group of politicians, top military brass, top educationalists, human rights activists, marginalised members of religious minorities, and veteran campaigners against Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws. This is the story of the extraordinary man whose life they were celebrating.

Cecil Chaudhry was born into a Catholic family in 1941. Six years older than the nation of Pakistan, he was a proud patriot, but one whose inclusive vision for the nation was increasingly at odds with the sectarianism that took hold throughout his lifetime.

Chaudhry had three distinct careers, as fighter pilot, educationalist and human rights campaigner. The first of those earned him the lifelong and universal respect of his compatriots. His 28-year career in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) began in 1958, and his reputation was sealed with the country's third highest military honour for bravery during the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war. During the 13-day war with India in 1971, his aircraft was hit, and caught fire. Rather than bailing out behind enemy lines, he took the plane to a height of 3,500 feet, glided towards home territory, and landed in what he later discovered was a dense minefield. For the rest of his life, he described his escape against improbable odds as a miracle. Despite broken ribs, he insisted on flying more missions and days later, shot down two Indian aircraft in the area where his own plane had been hit. He was decorated again for bravery.

Chaudhry continued to be absorbed by the PAF, but the nation he served was changing. In 1983, he returned from a posting in Iraq, expecting a promotion for which he had been cleared. Instead, he learned that General Zia ul-Haq, who had seized power in a military coup in 1977, had blocked Chaudhry's promotion on the basis of his Catholic faith. No Christian had ever reached the senior echelons of the military in Pakistan, and Zia's Islamisation agenda now seemingly made it impossible.

In 1986, Chaudhry resigned his commission and retired in the rank of Group Captain. It was a major turning point in his life. His illustrious military career had not blinded him to the injustices of Pakistani society. Now social justice issues, and particularly the plight of religious minorities, were to become his greatest passion.

In the same year, Zia's administration introduced section 295C into the Pakistan Penal Code. The harshest clause of Pakistan's "blasphemy laws", it made blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed punishable by death. Section 295B (introduced in 1982) had made blasphemy against the Qur'an punishable by life imprisonment.

The blasphemy laws and their pernicious effects came to dominate Chaudhry's activism from 1986 until his death. It was difficult and painful work, much of it low-key and discreet. At great personal risk, he sheltered many victims confronting serious danger to their lives because of blasphemy allegations against them.

Among Chaudhry's proudest legacies was to mentor a young Catholic activist, Shahbaz Bhatti, and he described "forcing" the reluctant Bhatti to accept the position of Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, a new Cabinet-level appointment. From this high office, Bhatti would attract global support for his campaign against the blasphemy laws, and take some genuine steps towards introducing reforms.

In March 2011, Bhatti was assassinated. It came as a terrible blow to Chaudhry, whose wife of 46 years, Iris, had died ten months earlier. He said, "To me, I have lost a son". Chaudhry had also recently been diagnosed with lung cancer and the scheduling of his treatment meant he was unable to attend Bhatti's funeral, which grieved him deeply.

He vowed to continue the fight for a repeal of the blasphemy laws, saying, "We're ready to lay down our lives". It was not an empty promise, for he knew all too well the cost.

Despite orchestrating some spectacular successes, not least overturning a system of separate electorates which he described as "religious apartheid", Chaudhry never saw that particular dream fulfilled. It is still as dangerous today to breathe a word against the blasphemy laws as it has ever been.

Chaudhry saw his work as a battle for the soul of Pakistan. He absolutely rejected the narrow, Islamist agenda which Zia embodied, viewing it as a betrayal of Pakistan's history and heritage. He would recall the pluralist ideals of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, and recount energetically the role played by Christians such as Victor Turner and Alvin Robert Cornelius in the nation's founding. In a 1998 interview, he said, "I consider all the 140 million people of this country as my community, and believe that 90 per cent of them are being persecuted at the hands of the powerful. As such, I am involved in the struggle for everyone's rights".

May the legacy of an unsung hero live on.