Australian Catholic priest, Father Robert McCulloch, has been awarded the highest civilian honor Pakistan can bestow on a foreign national by President Asif Ali Zardari.
“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 Pakistan,” Fr. McCulloch told EWTN News.
As priest with the St. Columbans Mission Society, 65-year-old Fr. McColloch has worked for over 30 years to promote health and education among the poorest in Pakistan.
On Feb. 15, Fr. McCulloch was given the Sitara-e-Quaid-e-Azam – Star of the Great Leader – for “services to health, education and inter-faith relations.”
His many achievements include setting up the first home-based palliative care unit in Pakistan for those with terminal cancer. He also established a medical outreach program which is now the sole provider of free medical care to over 20,000 people in the rural parts of Sindh Province. Meanwhile, he set up two educational centers for 150 boys and young men in the city of Hyderabad.
“Of course, I am personally honored as a Columban priest in receiving the 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 in Pakistan,” he said.
The Sitara-e-Quaid-e-Azam is named after the country’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who was referred to as the “Quaid-e-Azam” or “Great Leader.” Fr. McCulloch said Jinnah had always wanted Pakistan to be “a nation that embraced the diversity of languages, cultures and religions in unity and harmony and equality.”
The award comes only a year after the assassination of the Pakistani Catholic politician, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was gunned down in the capital city of Islamabad after criticizing the country’s blasphemy laws.
“Christians in Pakistan are very often labeled as a minority and told 'you can't do that because you are non-Muslim,'” explained Fr. McCulloch, “I have always encouraged them to reply 'I can because I’m Catholic' and to be proud of being both Christian and Pakistani.”
Fr. McCulloch now lives in Rome after taking up an appointment as the Procurator General for St Columbans Mission Society in late 2011. He said he leaves behind a Pakistan where the Church has “an outstanding young generation of good and enthusiastic priests,” and laypeople that are “extraordinarily gifted and committed.”
“The Catholic Church in Pakistan is a poor church; it doesn't have much money. But it is rich in its good and faithful people,” he said.