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from issue no. 08 - 2007

COUNTRIES OF THE GULF. Testimonies from the cradle of Islam

The faith in Jesus blooms even in the desert

«Here the Catholic Church lives off the essential, the sacraments and devotion... What makes the people I talk to open their eyes wide every time, even if they’re the top leaders of these countries, is whenever I say: “More than everything else, we Christians pray for you”». A meeting with Monsignor Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar of Arabia

Interview with Paul Hinder by Giovanni Cubeddu

The latest novelty in the diplomatic sphere was the setting up on 31 May of official relations between the Holy See and the United Arab Emirates. As elsewhere in the Arabian peninsula, in the Emirates also the Church had already experienced, before the formalities, the good will of enlightened rulers: in this case the donation, in November 2006, in Ras al-Khaimah (one of the seven Emirates that make up the federation) of large tracts of land for the construction of Christian churches. Gratuity is the best model of relations with power that the Church experiences in its Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia. There in the cradle of Islam and where the prophet Muhammad lived and has met Jews and Christians in exemplary moments of justice and coexistence that would deserve much more attention being paid to them today, within and outside the Ummah.
In this crucial region, the Holy See maintains diplomatic relationships with Bahrein, Kuwait, Yemen and Qatar as well as with the Emirates, and hopes that the list will shortly include the Sultanate of Oman. The Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia – the most extensive in the world with more than three million square kilometers – includes all the States of the Arabian peninsula (with the exception of Kuwait, where the ordinary is Bishop Camillo Ballin, a Combonian missionary). The current head of the Vicariate is the Bishop Paul Hinder, a Capuchin Friars Minor, who continues the silent and ardent tradition of his Order in offering religious to these lands that have become a most delicate watershed in the relations between faiths and civilization, and between global politics and economy, given the enormous interests involved in energy resources. The first Apostolic Vicar of Arabia, Bishop Louis Lasserre, was also a Capuchin. In the heroic times (the Vicariate was formally established in 1889) the logistical base for the care of souls was by chance in salubrious Aden, in the Yemen, in that southern part of the peninsula known to the Romans as “Arabia felix”. Since 1973, instead, the residence of the Apostolic Vicar is the futuristic Abu Dhabi.
Monsignor Hinder listens to and very often takes counsel of Bernardo Gremoli, his fellow monk and predecessor as Apostolic Vicar from1976 to 2005 and, when he can, visits him. It is the same fine story that continues.

Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar  of Arabia

Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar of Arabia

Your Excellence, what is the situation of the Church in the Arabian peninsula, inherited from your predecessor Monsignor Gremoli?
PAUL HINDER: My impression has been that of a very lively, numerous Church. A situation one doesn’t expect when arriving in this part of the world for the first time. Where the governments have granted land for building churches, you find very impressive communities indeed, that give me joy and courage.
The problem we are faced with in nearly all the countries of the Gulf is precisely that of space. Because even if we have received land for building churches, it’s already no longer enough. And it’s a concrete issue, that sometimes provokes arguments between the various language groups and rites pertaining to the same parish, and creates problems for the bishop, who must always behave in the fairest way. Something not always possible, materially...
HINDER: Let’s take Qatar as an example, where there are more than 50,000 Philippinos, 85% of whom are Catholic. We are building a large church for them, but at the moment they don’t have one. A great many Indians live in Qatar and adding it all up the Catholics come to between 140,000 and 150,000. Up to now the space for the liturgy has been found in the premises of the American and Philippine schools and in other places rented from time to time for worship. This dispersion doesn’t help in taking pastoral care of such a composite group of faithful, in keeping it unified. The lack makes itself felt, and it distresses us.
The problems relating to the authorization for the building of churches have been benignly resolved in some countries of the Gulf by the Muslim leaders. Do you find that difficulties are subsequently created?
HINDER: As far as I know reproaches never come from the highest levels of government. Problems aren’t created and relations are good. But progress makes itself felt here too, we may have the practical need to pick the opportune moment to approach the authorities...
Which means what?
HINDER: Years ago, when Monsignor Bernardo Gremoli began roaming the Arabian peninsula, everywhere the life style was closer to the Bedouin past, more informal and direct compared to the present bureaucracies. Today the ill-famed delays are very often attributable not to malevolence, which doesn’t exist, but to the tangled life of the ministerial structures, more and more complicated, even in the Gulf. I don’t deny that sometimes one can come across less up-to-date government officials, who aren’t aware of the social changes that have happened in their countries, or others who instead take a more radical and close-minded line. But such phenomena can be found in any administration. It’s not a prerogative of the Gulf.
Paradoxically, the Bedouins of the past were more traditionalist but also more open compared to their successors, more sure of themselves. The thing that I mainly hope is that all of us, Muslims or Christians, always take account of the real situation.
Are there some illustrative episodes in this sense?
HINDER: Many. I remember a meeting with the Sultan of Oman, when I and the Anglican bishop had the possibility of speaking freely with him, for more than an hour, and he understood and accepted what we thought and we said. It was very cordial. As also the Minister of Religious Affairs of Oman and the head of the section of the WAQF, the office for religious property. In Oman, as Catholic bishop, up to now I have had freedom of movement and an extended visa with multiple entry permit. They listen and also try to help us, even while respecting the law that entails long waits for the emission of visas, even two or three months. That creates obstacles, if we have to respond quickly to some emergency concerning the Christians. But the civil servants listen, and if there’s real need they understand.
The parish church of Our Lady of the Rosary under construction in Doha, Qatar. The land was donated by the Head of State, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani

The parish church of Our Lady of the Rosary under construction in Doha, Qatar. The land was donated by the Head of State, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani

Other meetings?
HINDER: With the counselor for Religious Affairs of the President of the United Arab Emirates, already a good friend of Monsignor Gremoli. He’s a cordial man, so we meet each other gladly on official occasions; moreover we receive him in our Bishop’s House for Christmas greetings. On the other hand, as Apostolic Vicar, I am introduced to other authorities as representative of the Pope. They are indications of a certain affectionate, mutual esteem. In Yemen, then, where I often go, I’ve met several government figures, such as the Foreign Minister, or the Health Minister, to discuss the eventuality of opening a small clinic for the poor in one of our houses in Aden. And the King of Bahrein or the Emir of the Qatar show no less good will. Then there is everyday administration, the civil servant who doesn’t know us and maybe applies the rules strictly, lengthening the waiting...Then you need a lot of patience.
And when you get to the end of it?
HINDER: Well, everything gets settled with a bit more patience [laughter, ed.]... and if you haven’t got it, you learn it.
The fact that in some countries of the Gulf a cordial relation exists with the Catholic Church is in itself, among other things, a discreet request for closer approach to the Saudis.
HINDER: Of course, although I have no way of assessing the extent to which it’s been received so far. Here again patience helps. But, apart from this speaking together in silence, there is sometimes concern between the Saudis and the small countries of the Gulf, both because of lack of communication, and because of what may happen in Ryadh from a political point of view. There is mutual incomprehension, not least because of differences in mentality, of approach to burning issues... Towards the large problems involving all the Arab world or Islam, obviously Arab and/or Muslim unity comes about almost automatically. But in matters of detail, it’s no longer like that. Exactly as would happen with us Europeans.
The change of climate goes back to the Iran revolution of 1979 and then above all to 11 September 2001 and the second Gulf War resulting. Since then there has been more radicalism, skepticism, distrust in the Gulf. The minorities have felt greater insecurity, we talk together less. But that’s not true for everybody. Some people make an exception...
What does that mean?
HINDER: Those with at least a bit of education, or better, those who get to know the Christians personally, change their cultural baggage, become more positive... are less “afraid” of us. And that certainly also happens to the Christians towards the Muslims.
In your experience, in which circumstances is it easier for people of different religions to meet? What behavior brings them closer?
HINDER: The main node for the countries of the Gulf, pointed out also by the government authorities, is that the foreigners arrive to work and after some years they leave; therefore they aren’t considered immigrants to be integrated but simple “expatriates”. That inevitably changes the rules of the relationship. For example, the overwhelming majority of those who arrive do not learn Arabic. Let’s take Qatar: in general the Church restricted itself to the care of expatriates – among whom there are also Arab Christians from other countries, but they’re a small minority within a mass of Asians. That, too, influences the kind of co-existence, and also our relationships with the inhabitants are sometimes reduced to bureaucracy or receptions with the authorities. We hope that a continuous dialogue finally gets established with the native imams, who sometimes, however, and this is another problem, know only their own language. With the academic or political authorities, instead, who may even have studied abroad, it’s easier. Because, for example, they know Europe.
So, to answer your question, I would say that the field where we go along together best with the Muslims is respect for life – also at international conferences the Church and Islam have been close, for example in condemning abortion – and love for the family. Even with the disparity in the roles of man and woman, the sense of the family is very strong in Islam. We also share the desire for peace and justice...
How do the people you talk to react to the current international happenings?
HINDER: As we all know, and we’re well aware, every encounter between us will be weakened, and rendered less genuine, until both the perennial Palestinian issue and the current tragedy of the Iraqi people are resolved. They are open wounds in the Arab-Muslim world. And every time – I see it in my official meetings with the authorities – at a certain point in the discussion I will be asked: “And what are you doing? Which is the Pope’s position on Palestine? And on Iraq?”. Fortunately our Pope has been clear on the war, and also on Israel and Palestine the position of the Holy See is credible. But these nodal points remain, and the dialogue, for those of us here in the Gulf, is complicated.
Which are the features of the life of the Christian communities in the Gulf?
HINDER: Here the Catholic Church lives off the essential, the sacraments and devotion. There are charitable activities, carried out by members of the communities or through the parish priest or the local bishop. But there are no structures, and it would be difficult to have them. The exception is four schools belonging to the Apostolic Vicariate, and another four private ones, run by religious: they are very important activities for us. The students are mostly Muslim. They are the great majority if we consider the institutes overall, but at the Rosary School in Abu Dhabi the Muslims represent as much as 95% of the students! And all these students who have studied with us go away with a rounded idea of who Christians are. The reputation of the schools is good, and even the sheikhs feel free to send their children to us.
The Apostolic Vicar Paul Hinder participates in an inter-religious conference on the topic of tolerance, Abu Dhabi, 23 January 2007

The Apostolic Vicar Paul Hinder participates in an inter-religious conference on the topic of tolerance, Abu Dhabi, 23 January 2007

The Arabian peninsula is well known as being a problematic place for freedom of worship. But when a ruler, an emir for example, a friend to the Christians, hears western debates on the subject of reciprocity, what is the reaction?
HINDER: First of all, I wouldn’t say that the prime intention of those who rule in the Gulf is to deny freedom and reciprocity to Christians. No. Maybe they haven’t received the right information on the real needs of the Christians in their country, they underestimate them. I’d like to recount an episode involving the current Sultan of Oman. He once said that in Great Britain, when he was a student, he was lodged with a family of Christians. Not only did his hosts assign him his own small room, but they also set aside a second room for him, as a place of prayer, as if it were, he said, his “little mosque”. That experience marked him for ever, and when the Sultan was attacked for having destined land for the building of churches in Oman, he answered his critics by saying that if in a foreign country they had recognized his right to pray, all the more reason now for Christians to be able to pray in his home. Is that not an example of reciprocity? Then, as I said, here and there in the Gulf there may be an underestimation of the needs of Christians: that can be negotiated.
Oman is not a case to itself.
HINDER: In fact. I have met the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, who also studied in Europe, and we spoke exactly in the same terms as with the Sultan of Oman.
Of course, in the Gulf we also find those who do not think they should guarantee full freedom of worship because they are convinced followers of the only true religion of Islam, and within that framework Christians are tolerated, but they have no other right than that of becoming Muslim...
The Christians in Oman owe their freedom to profess their faith publicly to the personal experience of their Sultan.
HINDER: It’s true... It’s an episode that the Sultan always speaks of. In the same way, it’s interesting to remember that when the Sultan heard some imams preaching in coarse and immoderately radical fashion and learned that they had come on purpose from Egypt, he had them accompanied to the border, because he did not want this false Islam to take root in the mosques of his country.
In the United Arab Emirates they have taken a further step, establishing that, where necessary, there be a check on the Friday preaching, in order to avoid infiltration. If an imam refuses to submit to a prior reading of the text of what he will tell the faithful in the mosque, all he can do is keep to the official texts prepared by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. You see, I as Christian bishop am freer than the imam! Because nobody has ever come to ask me to correct my sermons...
The issue of the exported radicalism is delicate in the Gulf.
HINDER: When, years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood spread out from Egypt into other countries, they were received with open arms. There was no awareness of what was inside. But the idyll didn’t last long, and certain Arabic States have reacted. With close and strict checks, or with expulsion.
From your point of view, what will most help the Catholic community in the countries of the Gulf to be better understood and hence to have more breathing space where necessary?
HINDER: All we have to do is become comprehensible to the mentality of these peoples. By doing three things.
The first?
HINDER: The easiest, what makes the people I talk to open their eyes wide every time, even if they’re the top leaders of these countries, is whenever I say: «More than everything else, we Christians pray for you». In our masses, on every feastday, we pray for intercession for those who govern the country, and for the well-being of the people of whom we are guests. And that remains fixed and is valid even if the Christians may have suffered or are enduring injustices.
The second one?
HINDER: I try every time to remind the people I am speaking with that the wealth of these oil countries is being accumulated thanks also to the poor unskilled labor of the immigrants, of the expatriates present in every one of the innumerable work sites open in the Gulf. And that part of them are Christian. And then, the Church, that is doing its best to look after these people, is helping the development of the country by so doing and, if you like, also assures greater civil order. The well-being of the country and the people whose guests we are is of interest to the Church.
HINDER: We respect the laws of the country, and ask that others do so also.
Asian immigrants at work in the United Arab Emirates. They are mostly Christian

Asian immigrants at work in the United Arab Emirates. They are mostly Christian

The Christian communities are judged by their hosts according to their behavior in everyday life. But how does their bishop judge them?
HINDER: At the in coena Domini mass in Abu Dhabi, there were 15,000 faithful present at least. It was celebrated in the open, if you could have heard that hush and seen the congregation’s attention! The same thing happened on Easter night. You can see images like that only from Saint Peter’s Square, perhaps, but with less devotion... because the square is vaster and people get distracted in it. And then I see so much devotion here, that is not just the expression of the religious feeling of Indian or Philippino immigrants or from other Asian countries, but that brings to light the good battle of the faith, the vital desire to deepen it. «Father, I have more faith here than in my own country», more than one person has said to me. Perhaps it’s because of the situation of exposure that as Christians we are subject to here, in countries that are not Christian. But... look at what result. Let me tell you the story of the European who had lost his faith...
Please do.
HINDER: In his native country the possibility exists of officially resigning from one’s religious community – in this case the Catholic Church – valid even in terms of the official relations between Church and State. So, some time ago I received a letter from a man who was no longer “officially” Catholic, and who works in a country of our Vicariate where there is not freedom of worship. Even with all the difficulties he was facing there, or who knows... perhaps just because of them, he told me: “I want to re-enter the Church”. Here in the Gulf, for many reasons, one is daily presented with the possibility of abandoning one’s faith, or of re-embracing it, never to leave it again.
Your Excellence, you are describing a place where every pastor would like to find himself.
HINDER: I’m tempted to say that, more than in other western countries, here the people love the bishop... And to think that I didn’t ask to come here.

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