For the first time in Pakistan’s recent history, a Christian is being honored with a state funeral. Dr. Ruth Pfau, a German-born nun who lived in Pakistan for over 50 years and adopted it as her homeland, died earlier this month at age 87.
Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi announced the state funeral for “Pakistan’s Mother Teresa” in recognition of the Catholic physician’s monumental contribution in controlling the spread of leprosy in Pakistan.
“Pfau may have been born in Germany, [but] her heart was always in Pakistan,” Abbasi told Gulf News. “She came here at the dawn of a young nation looking to make lives better for those afflicted by disease, and in doing so, found herself a home. We will remember her for her courage, her loyalty, her service to the eradication of leprosy, and most of all, her patriotism.”
A notification issued by Atif Aziz, Sindh law deputy secretary, said that “the national flag shall fly at half-mast on Saturday, August 19,” in her honor. She is reported to be one of the only Christians and the first Christian woman to ever be accorded a state funeral in the Muslim-majority nation.
The World Health Organization set the year 2000 as the target for controlling leprosy; Pakistan achieved it four years earlier, in 1996, becoming the first country in Asia to have successfully controlled the spread of the disease—a goal Pfau achieved almost single-handedly.
“Not all of us can prevent a war; but most of us can help ease sufferings—of the body and the soul,” said Pfau, who was inspired to become a doctor after World War II. She was born into a Lutheran family, converted to evangelicalism in college, then joined the Catholic church, eventually feeling called to serve as a nun.
When Pfau, who belonged to the order Daughters of the Heart of Mary, arrived in Pakistan in 1960, thousands of families were affected by leprosy, a disease then considered incurable. Family members used to drop their affected loved ones at the Lepers’ Colony set up by the Catholic Church in Karachi.
In 1963, Pfau turned a dispensary at the Lepers’ Colony into a hospital, named after the founder of the congregation, Marie Adelaide de Cicé. The Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC) eventually established the National Leprosy Control Program in 1984. A total of 175 leprosy treatment centers were set up across Pakistan to treat leprosy patients. Many healed patients were later inducted as employees at these centers.
Pakistan gave Pfau honorary citizenship in 1988. She also received three of Pakistan’s highest honors—the Sitara-e-Quaid-e-Azam in 1969, the Sitara-e-Imtiaz in 1979 and the Nishan-e-Quaid-e-Azam in 2011.
In 2004, Aga Khan University conferred upon her an honorary degree of Doctor of Science. She also received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. The German government conferred on her The Order of the Cross in 1968, the Commanders’ Cross of the Order of Merit with Star in 1985, and the Bambi Award in 2012.
Additional reporting by Kate Shellnutt. To read more about the life of Pfau’s life, read her obituary in the Daily Times (Pakistan).