A Catholic bishop in the cradle of Islam
An interview with Giovanni Bernardo Gremoli, Apostolic Vicar of Arabia for twenty nine years, with jurisdiction over all the Catholics in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and the Yemen: «In the light of my experience any attitude aimed at exacerbating the confrontation between the West and the Islamic world is useless and dangerous»
Interview with Giovanni Bernardo Gremoli by Gianni Cardinale
An aerial view of Mecca
Your Excellency, when you arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1976, what was the situation of the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia?
GIOVANNI BERNARDO GREMOLI: It was critical, because my predecessor was expelled from the historical See of the Vicariate which was Aden in the Yemen. There were few priests, just eleven, few places of worship and it was the time of the oil boom, with thousands of Catholic workers who from all parts of the world converged on the Gulf to work for the oil companies and in the ever more numerous building sites for the constructions of towns and aqueducts.
And what did you do?
GREMOLI: I immediately agreed to invite priests, also ad tempus, not only from my Order, that of the Franciscan Capuchins, having difficulty with vocations at the time, but also from other Congregations. Thanks be to God among the Catholics present in the Vicariate there were young immigrants who had already heard the call of the Lord in their homeland. So I decided to send some of them, the most convinced, to study abroad. I sent seven and seven came back as priests. Today they carry out their mission in the Vicariate, which overall can count on 48 priests.
Then you faced the question of places of worship…
GREMOLI: It was a delicate and complicated business. Much patience and delicacy as well as a pinch of diplomacy was needed to obtain permits and land to build churches and schools. At times four, sometimes eight, years were needed to get positive replies. In the end however the results came, and in some cases even greater than the expectations.
Giovanni Bernardo Gremoli
GREMOLI: The rulers appreciated the good conduct of our Catholics, who were always committed to observing the rules of local communal living and showed a religious fervor that positively impressed the local authorities. More than once I heard it said that they accepted my requests because Catholics pray and pray a lot, they participate very devoutly in hours of worship and in sacramental life. Finally over almost thirty years the Vicariate has managed to build a total of eleven churches and parochial complexes, all on lands granted freely by the authorities. The majority of the sacred buildings were constructed in the Emirates. But four churches were also built in Oman, where there had been none since the nineteenth century, and one in Bahrain, where the one built in 1939, the first in the Gulf, was by then completely inadequate.
Eleven churches built and one on the way…
GREMOLI: It’s a historic fact for two reasons. For one thing because there was never a church in Qatar. And then because in Qatar, as in Saudi Arabia, the people and rulers are Wahabi Muslims, a notoriously very orthodox sect.
We’ll come back to Saudi Arabia. One of the Vicariate’s strong points is that of the Catholic schools…
GREMOLI: I must say that our presence in the Gulf is particularly appreciated precisely because of our schools, that have a very positive impact on the people and the local elite. In thirty years eight schools have been built in the Vicariate, seven in the Emirates and one in Bahrain. All of them directed by nuns of various congregations (Indian Carmelites, Italian Combonians, Baghdad Chaldees, Sisters of the Rosary of Jerusalem). They are officially recognized by the authorities and much respected both for their high level of education, as well as for the discipline and for the atmosphere of respect and brotherhood among the students who belong to different nationalities and religions, but also because they are situated in modern structures, always kept clean and in order.
What is the nature of the schools?
GREMOLI: They are open to everyone and more than 60% of the overall 16,500 students are Muslim. The teaching staff are highly qualified, the authorities are very demanding about that. The schools are in fact under the control of the respective Ministries of Education – who frequently send inspectors – as far as the curricula are concerned, and under the control of the municipalities as regards hygiene.
Is religious instruction scheduled? According to what criteria?
GREMOLI: There is a government obligation to impart religious instruction for three hours weekly to all students. The schools therefore give lessons in Islam to all the Muslim children (Sunnites, Shiites or other sects), lessons in Christianity to all the Catholic children and those of other Christian denominations, moral principles based on natural law to all the non-Christian and non- Muslim children.
The photo with the dedication of Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahayan, Minister of Higher Education of the United Arab Emirates, along with Gremoli. «To my dear Bernardo. It has been a pleasure knowing you as a friend and man of peace and tolerance and real fine human being and man of God. I wish you all the best».
GREMOLI: We have never had ethnic or religious conflict. The atmosphere has always been one of mutual cordiality and sympathy. So much so that when I gave up the direction of the Apostolic Vicariate the minister of higher education of the United Arab Emirates, where, as I have already said, seven of our eight schools are to be found (the other is in Bahrain), Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan wanted personally to express his appreciation with his signature on a photograph that I keep among my most precious souvenirs.
Previously you said that the schools are run by nuns. But are there other religious who are involved in charitable activities…
GREMOLI: In the Yemen, the White Missionary nuns, professionally very well trained, have for several years run first-aid centers and have worked in various hospitals since 1972. Unfortunately because of lack of vocations they had to abandon this work. Also in Yemen the Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta have been present since 1973, and actually administer four institutes for handicapped children and abandoned old people. For many years the Missionaries of Charity also had a leper center in Ta’izz that housed and looked after hundreds of the sick: because of its efficiency it was called the City of Light, so much so that many of the sick once cured preferred to remain and live in the surroundings instead of returning to their own villages. Both the leaders and the Yemenite people have great appreciation for the work of the Sisters of Mother Teresa.
Yet in July of 1988 three sisters were barbarously killed while they went from their house to their institute in Hodeida…
GREMOLI: It was a tragic but isolated episode that cost the lives of Sister Zelia, Sister Aletta and Sister Michela, and that devastated the authorities and the people. It was the work of a fanatic returned from the war in Bosnia. The president was truly shocked by the event, not least because it was the government itself that had called the Sisters to the Yemen. Mother Teresa visited Yemen many times, and the authorities of this country always considered her a saint, so much so that at the ceremony for her beatification the government sent as its representative a doctor, a member of parliament, who had attended the Catholic nursery in Aden as a child. As for the Yemen, I’d like to mention the religious who carry out their duties there.
Who are they?
GREMOLI: They are four Salesians from the province of Mangalore in India. They are very involved in assisting the Missionaries of Charity and the local Catholic communities. The Salesians have been present in the Yemen since 1988 when they substituted the White Fathers who had to leave because of lack of vocations.
GREMOLI: It’s difficult to put together statistics because of the remarkable turnover of the faithful throughout the peninsula. According to a reliable estimate on my arrival, in 1976, the Catholics were about 200,000, today it is calculated that at least three million live in the Vicariate.
And where do they come from?
GREMOLI: Once, at the exit from Sunday mass in Dubai cathedral, we conducted a census to find out the place of origin of the faithful. We registered a good 93 nationalities of origin. However a large part are Indians and Philippinos. The latter number about a million in Saudi Arabia alone.
In the last years of your stay at the head of Vicariate diplomatic agreements – previously non-existent – between the Holy See and some of the countries of the Arabic peninsula also multiplied …
GREMOLI: In fact in 1998 the Holy See established diplomatic relations with the Yemen, in 2000 with Bahrain and in 2002 with Qatar. The first nuncio in this country was Archbishop Giuseppe De Andrea, resident in Kuwait, who has recently “retired” after having done great good. I also believe that Oman is strongly interested in establishing diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The United Arab Emirates represents a chapter apart. Seeing that the bishop apostolic vicar is resident there, it is difficult for the local authorities to understand the necessity for the presence of another bishop, the nuncio, as representative of the Pope. For them the Vicar of Arabia is already the representative of the Pope. So much so that the vicar himself is considered an ambassador and participates normally at the meetings of the diplomatic corps with the sheikh. But I don’t exclude the possibility that in the future this small anomaly will be happily resolved.
Your Excellency, up until now we have talked of the “joys” and “successes” that have accrued over these last thirty years, but you yourself in your farewell speech also spoke of “sorrows” and “failures”…
GREMOLI: I think first of all of the pain provoked by the barbaric killing of the three dear nuns in the Yemen. Then, despite all the support we have had from the authorities in establishing places of worship, we must recognize that we have not been able to guarantee adequate religious assistance to a large number of Catholics, we have not been able to guarantee them a place suitable for services. They are the Catholics who live in the desert, in the work camps on the pipelines or on the platforms. Without counting then that many Christians, either because of the lack of means of transport or lack of permission from the employers – I’m thinking especially of Christians who are domestic helps in very large Islamic families – don’t in fact have the possibility of attending Sunday mass, even if for Christmas and Easter they are left free to do so.
Regrets also for not having made converts?
GREMOLI: Our principal task is to try to keep alive the faith of Catholics who find themselves there. It is also known that according to the local laws any form of proselytism is prohibited and conversions are forbidden. Therefore whenever anyone is touched by grace, the fact cannot be given any publicity.
A delicate subject also here in the West is that of marriages.. I imagine you have had to face the same problem in the Arabic peninsula…
GREMOLI: Mixed marriages, between Christians and Muslims, are actively discouraged both by us and by Islam, for many reasons. It must in fact be remembered that by Islamic law the children belong to the father and because of this the father must always be Muslim. Rarely did I grant dispensations and when I did, I did so only when the engaged couple were going abroad and the Muslim husband had committed himself to guaranteeing freedom of religion to consort and children.
Monsignor Gremoli with the teachers of the school of Saint Joseph in Abu Dhabi
GREMOLI: Over half of our Catholics are there. It is an area that reminds one a little of the time of the catacombs. In fact priests are not officially admitted, nor public celebrations of mass, except in the embassies. Catholics can pray only in their own house, without gatherings of other people, even if they are relatives or friends. Between 1979 and 1985 some priests who worked there “sponsored” by some companies, were discovered, arrested, imprisoned and expelled. Many Christians, surprised while praying together, suffered the same fate. In Arabia in fact a religious police force exists, the mutawa, very efficient, that intervenes immediately when there is a suspicion that there is a non-Islamic religious meeting. All the attempts made at every level by various governments, by the Holy See and especially by John Paul II to improve this situation, have not to date given any positive result.
Why this impenetrability?
GREMOLI: In Saudi Arabia a very rigid absolute monarchy reigns and the inhabitants are Sunnites belonging to the Wahabi group, a very orthodox and intransigent sect. They reserve custody of the sacred places of Mecca and Medina and consider all Arabia a holy Islamic place in which no other cult can be admitted.
Does this mean that the million and more Catholics present in Saudi Arabia are abandoned to themselves?
GREMOLI: Well… the Holy Spirit, despite these numerous problems and these notable difficulties, works in a wonderful way also in Saudi Arabia. It is not opportune to go into particular cases, but I can say that every year I was able to carry out my pastoral visit, to administer confirmation and other sacraments, to celebrate holy masses for many groups. I can also add that, periodically, some priest is “in transit” in those parts and his security is safeguarded with care.
So an important role in Saudi Arabia is played by the simple lay faithful?
GREMOLI: In effect it is they who take care of catechism for the little ones in private houses or in other residences. The “parish” of Riyadh is entrusted to a layman who, helped by others, scrupulously looks after what is essential, including the parish registers of the sacraments administered by the priests periodically “in transit”.
Do you think that Saudi Arabia will change its attitude in the future?
GREMOLI: It’s difficult to make forecasts. On the occasion of the death of John Paul II Saudi Arabia also, which does not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, sent an official delegation to participate in the funeral ceremonies. Another official Saudi delegation then participated at the inauguration mass at the beginning of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. We hope that these small signs may bear fruit and that Saudi Arabia will one day permit Christians at least to pray together according to their faith.
Your Excellency, what were the most difficult moments in these thirty years of episcopacy?
GREMOLI: Without doubt the first Gulf war and the recent invasion of Iraq created not a few problems. During the first conflict all the airports of the Arabic peninsula were closed and therefore for me it was impossible to visit our Catholics. Without taking into account that a more hostile climate was created, not very sympathetic, in our regard. Fortunately the decisive and clear position of the Pope and the Holy See facilitated the resolving of our difficulties. Because many Muslims – the more informed and honest ones – had understood that the Catholic Church should not be confused with the West and the countries that were at war. The same thing happened when the war that led to the invasion of Baghdad and the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein began.
Which Islamic figure has struck you most in these thirty years?
GREMOLI: A figure that merits special mention is that of the late lamented Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahayan, who in 1976 agreed that the See of the Vicariate should transfer from the historic See of Aden, in the Yemen, to his Emirate of Abu Dhabi (see inset). But the Emir of Qatar, the King of Bahrain and the Sultan of Oman also merit special mention. All personages who were very benevolent towards Catholics and who therefore deserve to be acknowledged.
Let’s begin with the Emir of Qatar…
GREMOLI: The Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani received me with great affability and openness from the time he was hereditary prince. He always showed himself very interested in the Christian world to the point that for three years now he has organized a Conference in Doha between Christian and Muslim scholars and experts. On the second occasion, that of 2004, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran also participated who, when he was Vatican “foreign minister”, was always close to us and of great help. And precisely on the occasion of the second conference, in the opening speech the Emir clearly said that for a true dialogue the presence of all the peoples of the Book was necessary and therefore also that of the Jews. I remember well that there were negative reactions to the announcement, but a Jewish delegation was also invited to the conference of 2005. This fact is still extraordinary because, as already said, Qatar is a Wahabi country. Let’s hope that this will be a good omen for Saudi Arabia.
GREMOLI: King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa deserves all our sympathy and gratitude not only for his own personal openness and cordial acceptance, but also for the merits of his successors. The dynasty that leads Bahrain has always been benevolent toward Catholics. The great-great-grandfather of the present sovereign, as I’ve already, gave his permission in 1939 for the construction of the first Catholic church in the Gulf. The father of the present king was a little upset when he discovered that the Holy See had chosen Abu Dhabi and not his Bahrain for the new See of the Vicariate, but then understood that it had to do with purely logistic reasons, seeing that it would have been more complicated for the Apostolic Vicariate to operate from an island, which Bahrain is.
And now a memory of the Sultan of Oman…
GREMOLI: Every time we asked authorization of Sultan Sayed Qabus ibn Said for the construction of a new church, he always wanted to know precisely how many Christians there were, and when he discovered that they were many he was always generous in granting sites. I remember a long meeting I had with him: with fraternal cordiality he wanted to know how Catholics found themselves in the Sultanate, what their problems were. On the same occasion he assured me that for him all the immigrants were very valuable people, to be helped and treated with justice and benevolence «because» he said «it is they who have contributed to the development of the country and we must be very grateful for this».
But are these figures you mention exceptions or are they fully representative of the countries they govern?
GREMOLI: I believe they are representative of the mentality of these countries, even if in these last years I have had occasion to notice a doubtful change. I don’t want to say that relations with the authorities and the people have worsened. But there is somewhat less of the great familiarity that there was previously.
GREMOLI: The fault of the negative influence of fundamentalist groups that have come from outside. Groups that are not officially present in these moderate countries, but that don’t fail to make their negative influence felt.
According to you what might be a constructive attitude towards the Islamic world?
GREMOLI: Dialogue and a greater reciprocal understanding. The dialogue must be especially about religious subjects. Personally I think that imposing dialogue about political, cultural or historical subjects is still too complex and risky. Religious dialogue must concretely aim at promoting freedom of worship and respect for the symbols of the various religions. It must aim at an agreement for the absolute condemnation of the destruction of churches or of mosques. Here giving an example is Benedict XVI who, during the Angelus of 26 February, condemned the acts of violence that recently broke out in Nigeria without differentiating between “Islamic violence” and “Christian violence”. The leaders of the two religions should also contribute to favoring greater reciprocal understanding. There is much ignorance on one side and the other. Not everyone knows, for example, that not only the Muslims but also Christian Arabs in their prayers and liturgy turn to the Lord calling him Allah. So when Western Christians are ironical about Allah, in reality they also offend Christian Arabs.
According to you is there a need to demand reciprocity of the Islamic world?
GREMOLI: Reciprocity is a fine thing. Complete reciprocity is obviously to be desired. But we must be realists. Today we cannot demand reciprocity on non-essential, marginal things, which sometimes not even Muslim groups who are a minority in their own countries enjoy. And I believe that the essential is the freedom to be able to practice one’s own religion, to have a place of worship, to be respected as sons of God. Therefore, for example, if the authorities grant me permission to construct a church on the condition that no Christian symbols appear outside it, I cannot be so intransigent as to ask that the church in question have a high bell-tower with a cross at the top. Otherwise I also place the authorities who were benevolent towards us in difficulty and the concession that was granted me is annulled…
There are still those who can’t understand why in Rome Saudi Arabia financed the construction of a large mosque while it doesn’t admit any church on its own soil…
GREMOLI: The mosque in Rome is fine where it is. Also because, even though financed for the most part by Saudi Arabia, many Muslims from other countries where we Christians are allowed to have places of worship use it. And then the permission to build it was requested by the then King Feisal, a sovereign of great openness also towards Christians, and who was perhaps killed precisely for these openings.
The Holy Mass celebrated at the school of Saint Joseph in Abu Dhabi at the farewell ceremony for Bishop Gremoli
GREMOLI: Frankly I don’t want to fight with anyone. They are attitudes that I respect. But which in the light of my experience I find barely understandable. Apart from the possible good intentions, to accentuate the confrontation between the West and the Islamic world is useless and dangerous. On some moral and religious aspects, Muslims have much to teach us also. Therefore there is little to be proud about. And then strength and prudence are Christian virtues, pride no.
GREMOLI: God forbid. The King of Bahrain, during the conference on Islamic-Christian dialogue celebrated during his reign in October 2002, said: «We, at today’s historical juncture, have a tremendous opportunity to converge again on new and essential purposes, supporting the values of tolerance and harmony, and emphasizing the need to oppose extremism in all faiths». I subscribe to this fully. I believe it is essential to avoid confrontation between two great realities, the Christian and the Islamic, that could have disastrous consequences for everyone.
You were the last of a series of five bishop apostolic vicars of Arabia, all Capuchins and all of Tuscan origin. Now your successor is a Swiss friar, Paul Hinder.
GREMOLI: In the choice of my successor the Order of Capuchins, with its minister general John Corriveau at its head, gave the best it had available. Bishop Paul was for ten years assistant to the minister general, he knows five languages and is studying Arabic, he has a degree in Law and Theology, and is a man of great experience. He was my auxiliary for a year and I had the opportunity to admire his faith and human capabilities. I am certain that he will do great good.
Your Excellency, a last question. Do you miss the atmosphere of the Arabian Peninsula?
GREMOLI: Pointless to deny it, a little yes. I left a lively Christian community, that lives its faith with joy, that looks to the future full of hope. Just think that in the parish of Saint Mary of Dubai alone, in 2005, 550 confirmations and 850 first communions were administered, 4,200 children attended weekly catechism and during the Paschal triduum a hundred thousand holy communions were distributed. Here among us the situation is certainly not as comforting…