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Islamabad is rejecting anti-Christian sentiment in honouring two missionaries

KARACHI (SE): “I see the award as a public statement by the government of Pakistan that it rejects the current stream of anti-Christian feeling being pushed by Islamic fundamentalists and extremists in the country,” Father Robert McCulloch told the Sunday Examiner after learning from the governor of the Sindh, Ishrat ul Ibad Khan, on February 14 that he is to be one of the recipients of the Sitara-e-Quaid-e-Azam Award for 2012, the highest civilian honour that can be granted to a non-Pakistani national.

The Sitara-e-Quaid-e-Azam Award is a reminder of the vision of Pakistan that its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, held. 

He is known as Quaid-e-Azam and his vision was for a Pakistan that embraced the diversity of languages, cultures and religions in unity, harmony and equality.

Australian-born Father McCulloch and Irish-born Sister John Berchmans Conway, from the Jesus and Mary Sisters congregation, will receive their awards at a ceremony in the presidential palace in Islamabad on March 6.

The citation for Father McCulloch reads, “For services to health, education and interfaith relations,” and for Sister Conway, “For services to education and promoting interfaith harmony in Pakistan.”

Father McCulloch said, “I am personally honoured as a Columban priest in receiving this award, but it is also a wonderful public recognition by the president and people of Pakistan of the presence and role of the Catholic Church.”

He added, “I believe the two of us are being recognised because everything we have done has been within the Pakistani Church, with Pakistani priests, sisters and lay people. It is a recognition that the Pakistan Church is Pakistani.”

The Australian missionary continued, “My identity as a priest here is not outside the overall Pakistani identity of the Church in the country.”

Father McCulloch has been in Pakistan for over 30 years. “I have lived almost half my life happily in Pakistan,” the 65-year-old missionary said.

He is the chairperson of the St. Elizabeth Hospital Administrative Council, providing quality medical services to the people of Hyderabad in the Sindh, in addition to a medical outreach programme to the rural parts of the state.

He has organised a Tuberculosis vaccination programme in the hinterlands among religious minorities, whom the government teams regard as unclean. 

As they are not of the Islamic faith, the Muslim health care workers would not touch them.

Today, Father McCulloch’s teams of Christian workers are invited by the authorities to come to Muslim towns to provide their services as well. “Attitudes do change,” Father McCulloch points out in a 2010 article published in Columban Mission in the United States of America.

A press release from the Columban Mission Society in Melbourne, Australia, reads, “He set up the first home-based palliative care unit in Pakistan, which provides care for cancer patients who are terminally ill. He initiated projects in 2007 to provide educational, spiritual, moral and personal formation for 150 Catholic boys and young men in Hyderabad.”

The hospital is also home to one of the few post-natal care units in the country.

It adds that Father McCulloch has also taken steps to preserve the Parkari Kohli language and has engaged experts around the world to work on a script to transform this spoken-only language into a written one.

During 2011, he arranged to provide food and medical treatment for over 1,000 families in the wake of the flood waters that devastated vast areas of the Sindh.

In 1985, he set up the first village school in the diocese of Hyderabad. Its success prompted the diocese to expand the programme and today, there are over 50 such schools in the area.

He has also acted as the chairperson of the Liturgical Texts Translation Committee for the Pakistan Bishops’ Conference, providing Mass texts in Urdu, in addition to authoring books in Urdu on his first love, Church history, as well as liturgy.

Sister Conway has spent 59 years teaching Muslim, Christian and Hindu girls. The Associated Press reports that she has touched the lives of countless Pakistani school girls as a friend and teacher.

“Her constant adherence to the call of duty spanning over 59 years has made her a living example to emulate,” the report says. She was also a teacher of the assassinated former prime minister of the country, Benazir Bhutto.

The Jesus and Mary Sisters is the first congregation of religious women to establish itself in what is Pakistan today, arriving in 1856.

“I think the great challenge for Pakistani Christians is to never underestimate their goodness,” Father McCulloch reflected. “Christians are often labelled as a minority and told you can’t do that because you are a non-Muslim.”

He added, “I have always encouraged them to reply, ‘I can, because I am a Catholic,’ while at the same time being proud of their faith and Pakistani identity. As a priest, I am in their debt, because they have inspired me to be full of faith in spite of everything that may happen.”

He explained that the Church in Pakistan is poor in material terms, but rich in enthusiasm, talent and ability. “There is an outstanding generation of good enthusiastic priests, whom I have had the privilege to teach at the Karachi seminary, and the lay people are extraordinary,” he concluded

The president, Asif Ali Zardari, on the advice of the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, approved the conferring of the two awards.

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