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Healthcare mission promoting interfaith ties in Pakistan

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A doctor provides treatment to a patient in their home in Pakistan. Photo: Courtesy St Elizabeth's Hospital in Hyderabad
A doctor provides treatment to a patient in their home in Pakistan. Photo: Courtesy St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Hyderabad

In an exciting new partnership, Catholic Mission Australia is working in close collaboration with the Columban Mission Society to strengthen the Catholic healthcare system in Pakistan, helping to promote interfaith relations in the majority Muslim nation and nurturing future leaders in critical areas, including midwifery and palliative care.

Catholic Mission Australia’s National Director Fr Brian Lucas says public donations have been directed towards supporting the expansion of St Elizabeth Hospital in the city of Hyderabad.

New developments will include an expanded midwifery school at the hospital to offer undergraduate degrees and a dedicated operating theatre to cater for the growing demand for orthopaedic surgery in Pakistan.

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“We hope this support can help continue to give real witness to the healing ministry of Jesus while also empowering people locally, giving them a sense of their own worth and their own dignity, to give them the opportunity and the capacity in the context of their own community, to find solutions to their own unique circumstances,” Fr Lucas said.

The chair of the board of the 80 bed St Elizabeth Hospital is Columban priest Fr Robert McCulloch, who spent around 35 years in missionary work in Pakistan and now works in the Columban Missionary Society’s headquarters in Rome.

He said St Elizabeth hospital has had a long history since the 1950s of providing quality healthcare to all Pakistanis and in so doing it has helped to nurture trust and understanding between the country’s Muslim, Christian and Hindu communities.

“It’s a genuine example of interfaith harmony in action, as not only our patients but our doctors too are mainly Muslims and Hindus who work closely with Christians,” Fr McCulloch told The Catholic Weekly.

“We have in a sense become a role model, which we are now encouraging the Catholic dioceses across Pakistan to embrace in the provision of hospital care.”

Fr Robert McCulloch blessing the palliative care ambulance van. Photo: Courtesy St Elizabeth's hospital Hyderabad
Fr Robert McCulloch blessing the palliative care ambulance van. Photo: Courtesy St Elizabeth’s hospital Hyderabad

The hospital’s administrator for the past four years, Mr Eric Siraj, said there has long been a great disparity of wealth between the urban and rural areas of Pakistan, which St Elizabeth’s hospital has been trying to address.

The hospital sends out mobile medical teams to these regions, reaching about 50,000 patients each year, including home-based palliative care.

“If a patient in a remote village needs urgent surgery and cases, for example, where a woman is having difficulty giving birth to a child, our mobile teams take in the patient and bring them straight to our hospital where they can have surgery, free of charge,” he explains.

“There’s no religious discrimination at all in our hospitals and it is indeed through providing free healthcare to everyone that Catholic hospitals such as ours have earned the respect and affection of the broader Pakistan community across the generations.”

Like many young managers in the Catholic hospital system, Mr Siraj has benefited from Catholic Mission Australia’s courses in church management, led by Fr Brian Lucas and Sr Antoinette Baldwin.

He has also had the opportunity to undertake management studies at the University of Santa Croce in Rome.

Fr McCulloch said one of the most rewarding aspects of his work in Pakistan has been helping to nurture local Catholic laymen and laywomen as the next generation of leaders and helping to establish a Catholic centre of academic excellence, aimed at providing education and formation to disadvantaged Catholic boys and young men in Hyderabad.

“Some graduates from that centre are now studying medicine and that has been immensely encouraging to see,” Fr McCulloch said.

A Doctors hands out medical supplies at a mobile camp in Pakistan. Photo: Courtesy of St Elizabeth's Hospital in Hyderabad
A doctor hands out medical supplies at a mobile camp in Pakistan. Photo: Courtesy of St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Hyderabad

Alongside his pioneering work in Catholic healthcare and education in Pakistan, Fr McCulloch has played a remarkable role in the formation of priests, lecturing in theology in Karachi for 27 years and having taught every current Catholic bishop in Pakistan.

Vocations to the priesthood are strong with 125 seminarians studying at the Philosophy seminary in Lahore and 115 at the major seminary in Karachi.

Fr McCulloch has also played a pivotal role in overseeing the translation of important documents into the local language of Urdu, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Roman Missal.

“On that front too, it’s been really rewarding to be able to work alongside five priests, all of whom I taught in seminary and who have all gone on to further studies in Rome,” he explained.

In the long term, Fr McCulloch said he would like to see many more Christian doctors trained up to work in Pakistan’s hospitals, which he believes would help to build upon the pioneering efforts of institutions like St Elizabeth’s in Hyderabad.

“This would continue to break down any barriers and discrimination on religious grounds since it would show firsthand how we are living out the healing ministry of Jesus in our work in the healthcare system.”

Mr Siraj also hopes to see the Catholic hospital network expand in Pakistan to also cover new centres in regional and rural parts of the country.

“That’s where the people are in such desperate need, where they often don’t have access to a proper education or healthcare and effective sanitation, and yet they do have the right to access good healthcare and palliative care, just as people do in the big cities.”

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