CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 14 September 2019

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Decorated priest espouses same dream as founder of Pakistan

On March 16 this year, Columban missionary, Father Robert McCulloch, was awarded the highest honour that the Pakistani government can bestow on a foreign national at a ceremony in the parliament in Rawalpindi, the Sitara-e-Quaid-e-Azam Award, named in honour of the founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

On April 11, Muhammad Saleem Bhounr, the ambassador from Pakistan to the Holy See, hosted a dinner in Rome to mark the occasion. The following is Father McCulloch’s reply to the ambassador’s overture


It was with particular delight and happiness that I accepted the invitation for this evening from Mr. Muhammad Saleem Bhounr, ambassador of Pakistan to the Holy See.

I regard him as my ambassador also, having lived more than half my life in Pakistan. And I have lived there happily! Mr. Ambassador, when I was appointed to Rome and left Pakistan in late November 2011, I am sure you can understand how I felt, “Falling from heaven and landing in a spiky date palm tree.”

Mr Saleem and I have a connection, which, unknown to us, goes back many years. You were born in a Catholic hospital in Hyderabad in southern Pakistan, St. Elizabeth Hospital, and I was for many years the chairman of the Administrative Council of this hospital.

So, Your Excellency, we both have deep Sindhi connections: “The best road is the one that runs from one heart to another.”

The Catholic Church, Christianity, has been in the sub-continent, may I say the “Indian sub-continent,” for almost 2,000 years, before the arrival of Islam and before the emergence of the Sikh religion.

The Catholic Church was a constitutive part of the multi-religious, ethnic and linguistic reality from which the new nation of Pakistan emerged on 14 August 1947. The Catholic Church is no stranger, no intruder, no foreign element in the political, cultural and religious reality of Pakistan.

There are 3.5 million Catholics in Pakistan and 1.5 million other Christians in Pakistan, five million in all. Not many, you may say, in a total population of 175 million; but more than the population of New Zealand or Ireland.

Figures and statistics can be relative. Six of the seven bishops in Pakistani dioceses are Pakistani. More than 95 per cent of priests and religious sisters are Pakistani. There are 127 young Pakistani men preparing to become Catholic priests in the two major seminaries in Karachi and Lahore.

Catholic Pakistanis take pride in both their religious identity, as belonging to a worldwide fraternity of believers, the ahl-e-iman, who number one billion three hundred million and are united with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, and in their political identity, as belonging to the nation of Pakistan.

It is like the two sides of the one coin, or as the Urdu proverb has it, “You can’t clap with just one hand.”

In speaking of identity, I believe that Pakistan itself is presently engaged as a nation in a struggle to establish its identity. Since 1947, the identity issue was in terms of India: “not them, not Hindu.”

This was complicated by the truncation of Pakistan in 1971 when the eastern part, East Pakistan, separated and obtained its independence as Bangladesh.

Afterwards, especially during the era of the military dictator, Zia ul Haq, there was a turning of the nation towards Saudi Arabia to obtain its identity.

This was subsequently characterised by a clinging to the United States of America and is now marked by a chasing after the People’s Republic of China.

However, the actual reality of Pakistan, its diversity in religions, cultures, languages and ethnic groups, is the source of and the manifestation of its identity: one out of many.

It was this genius of the peoples of Pakistan which Muhammad Ali Jinnnah, the Quaid-e-Azam, the father and founder of Pakistan, identified as the source of the identity of the nation.

On 14 August 1947, Jinnah invited people to go on their own ways to their mosques, to their churches, to their temples, but to be collectively one in being Pakistani without difference or distinction and without discrimination.

I would like to say how honoured and proud I am to have been awarded a national decoration by the president of Pakistan, the Sitara-e-Quaid-e-Azam, which bears the name of the Quaid-e-Azam.

The mutual diplomatic relationship of the ambassador of Pakistan to the Holy See and the nuncio of the Holy See to Pakistan, along with everything else, enables both parties, the government of Pakistan and the Vatican, to look beyond the Islamic constitutional definition of Pakistan to the rich diverse religious and cultural heritage of the Pakistani peoples, who are the real constituents of any diplomatic encounter.

But there are now major challenges to the founding ideology of Pakistan, an embracing ideology, which are radically and seriously threatening, even undermining the identity of Pakistan and which attack the place of Catholics and Christians in Pakistan.

Firstly, there are the blasphemy laws, instituted in the 1980s, as tools of political manipulation by a military dictator, who used Islam for his own dictatorial purposes.

Secondly, the un-Islamic process of so-called Islamicisation makes people, whether Christian or Hindu or Ismaeli or ordinary Shias or Sunnis, victims in their own country.

Thirdly, Pakistani Christians, whose families have been living in Pakistan longer than many of the people who came after Partition in 1947, now have to endure the arrogance of some of the descendants of these migrants, who claim that they now have the right to decide who is a true Pakistani and who is not.

Fourthly, there are the well-publicised attempts by vicious, but well-organised, fascist-like armedgangs which seek to introduce a reign of terror in Pakistan in the name of religion.

Outstanding and ordinary Pakistanis are beginning to raise their voices against this anti-Pakistan agenda of intimidation and exclusion, which is essentially a new system of apartheid based upon religious difference.

Significant leaders have been martyred in Pakistan in the last 18 months, in the defence of the vision of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, for an including and inclusive Pakistan. They include the governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, a Muslim; and the federal minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic.

The new Catholic archbishop of Karachi, Bishop Joseph Coutts, is outstanding in challenging the political leaders of Pakistan about these sources of increasing religious discrimination.

It seems to me that, in addition to the great religious and social contribution that the Catholic Church makes to Pakistan, which the government recently acknowledged by awarding the Sitara-e-Quaid-e-Azam to me and to Sister Berchmans Conway, the Catholic Church has a special role to affirm and challenge Pakistan and its people and its political leaders about their commitment to the religious and cultural inclusion and harmony in diversity which is the genuine ideology of Pakistan.

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