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from issue no. 08 - 2007

Daily life in the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia

“But why do you Christians do this”

by Giovanni Cubeddu

Monsignor Paul Hinder with his predecessor Monsignor Giovanni Bernardo Gremoli

Monsignor Paul Hinder with his predecessor Monsignor Giovanni Bernardo Gremoli

The pre-Islamic poet Labid, before his conversion to Islam, recounts that during a journey from Mecca to the coast, on his approach to various villages, he «was always greeted by the crowing of the cock and sound of wood clappers (used instead of bells) of the churches calling the faithful to prayer» (cf. Egidio Picucci, Cento anni di dialogo con l’islam, Segretariato delle missioni cappuccine [One hundred years of dialogue with Islam], Secretariat of the Capuchin missions, Florence 1989). The Christianity that had spread among the nomadic tribes of Arabia in the early centuries had such a feature: a fact of daily life. At the time of the establishment of the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia, at the end of 19th century, the Christians were maybe 15,000 out of approximately 10-12 million inhabitants. Today they are at least a million and a half. In great part they are Asian immigrants come in search of work, of significant communities of Christian Arabs come from the Middle East, to which should be added groups of Europeans or Americans with higher professional qualifications. As is known, freedom of belief and above all of worship are not always permitted by the local Muslim rulers in the Arabic peninsula, in Saudi Arabia in particular. The positive novelty of the diplomatic relations now established with the United Arab Emirates (where approximately 500,000 Christians live) is very promising and rebuts the doom-laden prophecies of those who don’t want dialogue with Islam and denigrate it in the rear lines. Internally the new relations now require, as set down in such cases, that an agreement be worked out with the government of the Emirates on the civil legal status of the Catholic Church and on how to administer various practical problems such as, for example, the requests for entry visas for religious. In fact, apart from the Apostolic Vicar, who represents the Pope and has so far dealt with these needs of the Church, the Holy See will also soon be represented by the Apostolic nuncio (Monsignor Mounged El-Hachem, already nuncio to other countries in the Vicariate and resident in Kuwait City). More bureaucracy?«I simply expect the Secretariat of State to help the bishops...», comments Monsignor Hinder serenely. In fact in the Vicariate of Arabia the true issues are obviously not these. The anti-western feeling fed by the disastrous outcome of the war in Iraq is increasing mistrust of “the Christians”, who find themselves being targeted by the more extreme currents.«I can’t remember, however, even in the moments immediately after the polemic resulting from Pope Benedict’s lecture in Regensburg, a single act that has put the Christians of the Vicariate physically in danger», says Hinder, who obviously contributed to explaining the Pope’s lectio magistralis to his Muslim interlocutors, in face-to-face talks and in an open letter published on occasion of the following month of Ramadan. Monsignor Hinder adds: «It is more and more clear, as time passes, that what the Pope said in Regensburg will do us good, because he set the dialogue on a more realistic plane: if in Europe the challenge between faith and reason has never come to an end, it was with the Pope’s lecture that it entered the inter-religious dialogue. And, at bottom, reason enlightened by the faith comes to tell us that, whether in a secular state or in a Muslim one, we can live in friendship». Which is given back in exchange. The Vicar remembers a reception in Abu Dhabi and the well-wishing and liberal comments of Muslims hosts on the Pope after Regensburg. And then, at one of these gatherings of diplomats, where sometimes one goes taking a lot, if not all, as old hat – the conventionalities, the criticisms, the verbal subtleties diluted in commonplaces – something may even occur. The Vicar recalls: «In May the Ambassador of a Muslim, not Arab country, stopped me and asked: “Why, when a natural disaster happens, a catastrophe, you Christians are the first to arrive, and help everyone, without distinction of faith?”. I answered without thinking: “It’s our founder. It comes to us from Jesus, nothing else”».
Paul Hinder celebrated forty years in the priesthood last 4 July. His predecessor and fellow Capuchin, the first Vicar Apostolic of Arabia Louis Lasserre, arrived in Aden after tribulations and exile, suffered both in Europe and in mission lands (he had been among other things bishop in Morocco, then in Ethiopia). As a child Lasserre had been miraculously cured by the intercession of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, after whom the famous Marian sanctuary of Lyon is named, and later entered the diocesan seminary, from where, after the diaconate, he joined the Capuchins. In a moment of particular hesitation, the young Louis prayed for help to strengthen his vocation, and he found it in the saintly Curé d’Ars, Jean-Marie Vianney: «Don’t forget», the saintly Curé told him «that this is the will of the Lord». Then Lasserre went on the mission.

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