By Dr. Cllr. James Shera (Sitara-e-Pakistan, MBE)
The coffin, wrapped in Pakistani flag, carried by Pakistani soldiers. Nineteen cannon shots fired to pay salute. Live coverage on all the TV channels of Pakistan. This was the scene of a recent funeral ceremony attended by nobody less than President of Pakistan Mamnoon Hussain, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman and Vice Admiral Zafar Mahmood, along with thousands of mourners from all walks of life, including Muslim religious leaders, gathered at the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi.
These may appear to be glimpses of a funeral of a head of state but they are not. This was the befitting farewell given by the people of Islamic Republic of Pakistan to their heroine Dr. Ruth Pfau, a German Christian missionary who passed away on 10th August after serving people for nearly 57 years. The state funeral of Dr. Ruth Pfau on Saturday proved that the people of Pakistan value those who care for them. As I watched on television, as the state-run and private television networks of Pakistan broadcast live footage of her funeral, this sight of an exceptional measure for a foreign Christian in this Muslim country overwhelmed my heart and soul.
Seeing thousands of mourners along with the President of Pakistan gathered at the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi to honor her memory and top brass of all three armed forces of Pakistan saluting the casket of Dr. Pfau as it proceeded through the Christian grave yard, I thanked God for making the Pakistani people thankful to those who cared about them, irrespective of their religion and nationality
Every Pakistani has paid tributes to this person who was not born on this soil and practiced a religion different from the majority of population. Prime Minister of Pakistan Shahid Khaqan Abbasi also paid rich tributes to Dr. Pfau stating “Although she was born in Germany, her heart has always been in Pakistan”. The spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Nafees Zakaria emphasized, “The entire Pakistani nation is paying tribute to the extraordinary work of Dr. Pfau, and we will always remember her with fondness. We lost a national heroin.”
The respect and love of people of Pakistan for Sister Pfau was very well deserved. She had devoted her life to fighting leprosy in Pakistan for nearly six decades. She arrived in Karachi in 1960 and complications with her visa to India forced her to stay in Pakistan. After visiting lepers, she decided to stay and for almost 50 years she took care, as a doctor, of the sickest and poorest of the city.
In collaboration with the government of Pakistan, Ruth Pfau had helped open leprosy centers in nearly 150 cities in Pakistan, trained physicians, assisted thousands of victims, and helped develop a national program in order to control the epidemic, which had earned her high distinctions in Pakistan.
I feel happy that it is not after her death she earned the recognition; she was decorated with highest honors and awards of Pakistan in her lifetime. The awards and medals earned by sister Pfau include Sitara-e-Quaid-i-Azam, Hilal-e-Imtiaz, Hilal-i-Pakistan, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Jinnah Award, an Honorary Doctorate of Science (DSc) by Aga Khan University, Karachi, Nishan-i-Quaid-i-Azam for public service, and the renaming of Civil Hospital, Karachi to Dr. Ruth K.M. Pfau Hospital. For her dedicated work on leprosy Dr. Pfau was awarded Hilal-i-Pakistan on 23 March 1989. The award was presented by the then-President of Pakistan Ghulam Ishaq Khan at the President’s House.
On 30th January 2000, while speaking at a function in Islamabad to mark the 47th World Leprosy Day, the then-President of Pakistan Rafiq Tarar praised Dr. Pfau for building up the National Leprosy Control Program in Pakistan. Dr. Pfau helped not only those afflicted with leprosy, but also patients of tuberculosis. In 2006, radio station The City FM89 honored Dr. Pfau as the “Woman of the Year.”
On 14th August 2010, on the occasion of Pakistan’s Independence Day, the then-President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari conferred Nishan-i-Quaid-i-Azam on Dr. Pfau in recognition of her public service. After her work towards helping people displaced by the 2010 floods, she was hailed as Pakistan’s “Mother Teresa” Dr. Pfau also received the highest award of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, the Staufer Medal, in 2015.
As an acknowledgment of “selfless services” of Dr. Pfau, on 19 August 2017, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah has announced that the Civil Hospital Karachi would be renamed to Dr. Ruth Pfau Hospital.
Her wish was that the different “religions work together and the biggest religion was humanity.” asserted Dr. Claudia Vilani, an expatriate and colleague of Ruth Pfau. No doubt the way her funeral has been conducted manifests that the bonding of humanity is above religion, nationality, culture, cast and creed and the people of Pakistan do understand this.
(The writer is a British Pakistani politician, educationist and councillor for the last ten years and first Asian to become Mayor of Rugby in 1981)