The Southern Cross : October 2011
October 2011 Page 13 www.thesoutherncross.org.au The Southern Cross feature | As violence, urban rioting and terrorism plagues Pakistan, its people live in increasing fear, particularly those of Christian faith. But as Father Robert McCulloch explains to Jenny Brinkworth, there is a good news story to be told of Catholics living their faith against all the odds. After 34 years as a Columban missionary in Pakistan, Father Robert McCulloch is all too familiar with the religious, ethnic and political divisions of a country which most Australians know very little about. Yet Fr McCulloch says he has been "very, very happy" being a missionary and parish priest in the predominantly Muslim cities of Karachi and Hyderabad. Whether teaching liturgy, running relief programs or helping urban street kids, Fr McCulloch is inspired by the faith of those around him. Even when he recalls his time in the eighties travelling by camel to remote Hindu villages in the Sindh Desert, he is quick to praise the courage of a people branded "unclean and untouchable" by a harsh caste system, and their eagerness to embrace Christianity. "We helped them translate their unwritten language into text books for school-age children and by saving their language we helped save a culture that dates back to the ninth century," he says. Fr McCulloch was in the first group of Columban missionaries sent to Pakistan in 1978, working initially in the north. When he arrived in the Diocese of Hyderabad in the south of the country in 1983, there was no local clergy but today there are 13 diocesan priests and a thriving lay ministry. One of his proudest achievements is the development of the Institute of Theology in Karachi, where he has taught a "generation of priests" over the past 27 years. The institute now has an annual enrolment of about 80 students, including 19 seminarians in their ordination year. It is staffed entirely by locals, as are the other projects and organisations he is associated with, giving him cause for comfort when he leaves the Mission next year to take up a five-year appointment as Procurator-General of the Columban Fathers in Rome. That's not to say there aren't enormous challenges for Catholics living in Pakistan. Fr McCulloch rolls off statistics - population 180 million, 5 million Hindu, 4.5 million Christians of which about 4 million are Catholic -- to highlight what they're up against. The current wave of Islam extremism is not new. He says the anti- Christian sentiment dates back to 1977 when President Zia-ul-haq used religion as a justification for his military dictatorship and fed off Islam fundamentalism to maintain power. "Catholics have been told for a long time they 'can't do' this or that because they are Christian -- I tell them 'you can' because you are Catholic," he says. "There is a lot of antagonism against Christianity, there is no support from the State and a lot of derogatory talk such as 'you must be a street sweeper if you're a Christian'. Yet the people are firm in their faith, they are not bluffed out of their faith but rather they are ready to manifest it." He says Christians in the West have a lot to learn from this -- often being scared to acknowledge their faith in an increasingly secular world and yet, as he points out, "the atheists are not going to burn your house down". While Pakistan has a solid agricultural base, Father McCulloch says it is in the hands of "a feudal minority which controls the politics of the country" and workers are treated like serfs. "Serfdom is alive and well in Pakistan," he says. "There is a high level of illiteracy so when people are told that Islam is in danger, they tend to accept it. "Pakistanis don't think of Pakistan, they think caste, ethnic and linguistic allegiance. So Pakistan as a nation is a very weak concept and Islam is not a sufficient fabric to hold it together." At the same time there has been massive migration from the rural areas of the north into cities like Karachi which now has a population of 28 million. "Karachi is going to explode into major violence soon," he says. "Recently during the Mulsim month of Ramadan 96 people were murdered in two days and there have been ethnic, religious and cultural riots." A leading Catholic federal minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was murdered in February this year because he called for religious freedom for Christians. But strangely Father McCulloch has never feared for his own safety and says dressing as a priest is his best protection against violence. There is intense anti- American sentiment but foreigners are more likely to be regarded as British (because of its history) and therefore not necessarily a target. He finds it hard to understand why the Americans, and Australians, are in Afghanistan which has been plagued by war for 700 years, driven by the interests of tribal groups and bordering nations. "I can see absolutely no point in the Australians or Americans being there," he says. Pakistan's own internal politics are complex. Apart from the hatred between the Shi'ites and the Sunnis, the ruling party is rife with corruption and the Opposition leader acts like "a religious caliph". In the background is former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Kahn who, says Fr McCulloch, "beats his own fundamentalist, anti-Christian drum" and has a groundswell of support from the young intelligentsia who are looking for an alternative. Fr McCulloch was back in Australia to promote his mission work of which he is unashamedly proud. "Every single project has a very competent, efficient, professional approach," he says. As well as looking after two parishes in Hyderabad city and the desert area of the diocese (150kms apart) and two marriage tribunals, he is chairman of St Elizabeth Hospital which provided medical assistance and other aid to more than 26,000 farm labourers affected by the floods in 2010 and is now helping them rebuild houses. He also has helped establish a school of midwifery and was the driving force behind the country's first home-based palliative care program. Other projects include a Catholic Centre of Academic Excellence and an accelerated learning program for young men who have dropped out of school or never been to school. "I am very confident that the work I have been involved in will continue," he says. I've always worked on the principle that anything I work on has to be up and running in five years because depending on the political situation, I may not still be there." He is also heartened by the Catholic community's religious fervour, particularly among the young, and their willingness to manifest their faith. "It's a very muscular Chistianity," he says, and this is despite the fact that many parishes may only see a priest once every three or six months. There is more and more awareness amongst priests that we need to develop and empower lay liturgical ministry." Again, this is something that the Church in Australia can learn from. "It's good to come back here and explain what the situation is for Christians in Pakistan," he says, "but it's also important for Catholics to hear an upbeat story about what's happening to their faith in other parts of the world. "There is a blanket of negativity here but we need to look at the wider picture. It's a feel good experience of being Catholic, knowing that together we can make a difference." For further information, visit www.columban .org.au Pakistan Catholics fight for their faith MISSIONARY: Fr McCulloch with students in Pakistan and, below, emergency medical assistance is distributed to flood victims in 2010.