Richard Rawlinson interviewed Bishop
Paul Hinder, the Vicar Apostolic of Arabia.
16 May 2008
For the first time in 13 centuries
Christianity is openly practised in Arabia.
Approaching the high walled compound of
Dubai's 1,000-seater St. Mary's Church, there are, by Islamic law, no
external symbols to indicate what it is.
Leaving the desert heat of the barracks-like courtyard and entering the
cool interiors of the church itself is like stumbling across an oasis:
Crucifixes, neo-Byzantine portraits of Our Lady, statues of saints, and
polished pews scattered with men and women - mainly Indian and Filipino
ex-pat workers - deep in silent prayer. Come Mass times, it's transformed
again, packed to standing-room-only with worshippers. Catholicism in the
Middle East may be obliged to be discreet, but it's alive and well
The receptionist at the parish office shows me to a meeting room to wait
for Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vicar Apostolic of Arabia. As I inspect
a framed photograph of this 66-year-old Swiss-born Capuchin Franciscan
with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome, the door is flung open and in he bounds, a
tall, energetic presence wearing a "hot climate" white cassock
with red piping and a large cross around his neck. The optimism he at once
exudes is refreshing given the delicacy of his mission to oversee - or
seek to inaugurate - churches in an area the size of Europe and embracing
the six Gulf Peninsula countries of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman,
Bahrain, Yemen, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Based for just a few months each year at St. Joseph's Cathedral in the UAE
capital Abu Dhabi, Bishop Hinder is in Dubai on one of many pastoral
visits to the 14 "official" parishes within his sprawling and
During the course of our interview, he is illuminating about the ongoing
dialogue aimed at attaining the same religious freedoms for Christians in
Arab nations that Muslims enjoy elsewhere in the world. With Qatar
allowing its first Catholic church to open this Easter, Oman close to
forging diplomatic relations with the Holy See, and plans progressing for
a second church in Bahrain, the spotlight is now firmly on negotiations
with Saudi Arabia which still bans the open practice of non-Muslim faiths
although it has recently stopped confiscating Bibles at Customs.
Bishop Hinder also expounds on what provokes Muslim resistance to
reciprocity whether disrespectful depictions of Mohammed in Danish
newspaper cartoons, teddy bears innocently given the Prophet's name, or
the Pope's Regensburg speech of 2006 alluding to violence within the
And as well as the interfaith issues, Bishop Hinder also reveals a few
concerns relating to his own flock: Some Filipinos converting to Islam for
reasons of "career advancement" in their host country; or
reports of Protestants turning their evangelising effort to poaching
Catholics as they're barred by strict apostasy law from trying to convert
any local Muslim to Christianity.
"It's hard to gauge accurately the number of Catholics in the
vicariate," he says, settling into a leather armchair. "The
official estimate of two million seems conservative. For example,
the Philippines government has told us there are 1.2 million Filipinos
working in Saudi Arabia alone, and 85 per cent of them are Catholic.
That's one-20th of the Saudi population.
"What I do know is the parishes in the more open countries are
thriving, multi-racial communities: Asians who've migrated for work;
Arabic Christians who may have escaped troubles in their native Iraq,
Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt or Syria. We've made some progress in
establishing new churches, but they're insufficient for the numbers of
Bishop Hinder adds that the new £10m Church of Our Lady of the Rosary on
the sandy outskirts of Doha is the fruit of many years of negotiations
before the Emir of Qatar granted the land on which to build it.
"Our next project is a second church in Bahrain, but it's not simply
a question of securing the land from the authorities, it's a matter of
finding the funds to establish the church," he says. "We
rely heavily on collections within the vicariate - and it's the poorer
parishioners who are often the most generous - but we're at a stage when
we need money from outside to meet the big challenges ahead."
Before the great oil rush, most of
the region was sparsely populated with small Bedouin communities leading
simple lives circumscribed by the desert and Islam, lives that had hardly
changed in a millennium, and with little to offer industrialised
countries. In just a generation or so the untold oil wealth has
thrust the region into the centre of the world economy, deluging it with
western culture. The unrivalled building boom in new cities such as Dubai,
Abu Dhabi and Doha has required intense reliance on foreign labour and
know-how; construction workers, domestic, retail and leisure industry
staff, business and media executives, doctors and teachers - and this
influx has created the current impasse: The leaders of the sheikhdoms
realise the commercial need to accommodate ex-pats and maintain cordial
relationships with foreign powers, but cling to traditions of the old
social order. There is genuine antipathy towards secularism and
apostasy which - when added to the rage directed towards White House
foreign policy - can manifest itself at grassroots level in violent
"I don't think the virus of secularism will enter the Middle East in
the same way it has Europe," says Bishop Hinder. "Arabs live in
two different worlds; the modern and the religious. We must respect
the vigour of their faith and the presence of religion in public
life. The idea that faith is not just a private affair is also at
the heart of Catholicism. However, we must also be clear that double moral
standards exist among both Muslims and Christians. There must be respect
for life, rights for women and workers, and freedom of worship."
Last November King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited the Pope at the
Vatican giving him a gold sword during his half-hour audience.
Bishop Hinder sees the unprecedented encounter as a positive sign but is
not convinced that the cradle of Mecca and Medina, where the conservative
Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam prevails, and where al-Qaeda makes its
presence felt, will open up to reciprocating religious freedom any time
soon. "The discussion threw light on the affinity between Islam and
Christianity regarding issues such as the family and peace between Israel
and Palestine," he says. "I believe the King also appreciates
the benefits to Saudi of opening up, but I think he's also mindful of the
dangers of upsetting people within his kingdom." For now
Catholics gather to pray in homes and garages rather like they did in the
catacombs in early Christian times. It's difficult for priests to
enter the country, so Masses are rarely celebrated. The Saudi position is
that non-Muslims may practise their faith in private as long as it
"does not disturb others."
However, the definition of "private" has been open to the
interpretation of the religious police, the muttawa. "In recent years
the King has reduced the power of the muttawa, and the number of Christian
arrests has fallen," says Bishop Hinder. "Bibles, rosaries, and
crucifixes are also no longer confiscated as long as faith is practised
quietly behind closed doors." Offering an intriguing dimension
to the situation, he adds: "I have to say that there are fewer
problems for Catholics because we have always sought to keep a low
profile. However, in the case of Protestants and Evangelicals, there are
more arrests due to their activism.
"In fact, we've had some Evangelicals trying to convert Catholics to
their Church. We've also witnessed cases of Filipinos converting to
Islam in order to marry a local, or because they think they'll be able to
advance their careers. We must try to teach people to enter deeper into
the mystery of our faith."
As an ex-pat in Dubai, I myself have first-hand experience of an
evangelist's mission. Over Easter there was a security alert at my
local church of St. Francis of Assisi, a precautionary measure by the
authorities following the murder of the Catholic archbishop in Iraq,
Paulos Faraj Rahho. Cars were not allowed to park in the vicinity of the
church in the Jebel Ali suburb, and parishioners were scanned with metal
detectors at the entrance. When the congregation flooded out, I
could see it would be a nightmare hailing a taxi so was relieved to be
offered a lift by an Indian man in a Jeep, assuming he had just attended
the same Mass.
He was soon telling me how he had once been a Catholic but was now a
"born again" who liked to "help people who were stranded
and spread the Word." He invited me to come and see his church
assuring me how amazed I'd be by the young pastor's God-given gift of
casting out devils, "especially the devils in women who wail and fall
to the ground when the pastor touches them."
Bishop Hinder may not send women into trances, but he exercises
considerable tact, respect, and reasoning powers while dealing with Muslim
leaders and without compromising the purpose of his goal: To win the right
to worship in freedom and security.
On the Pope's Regensburg speech. his diplomacy skills stretch both ways.
"People are still talking about the speech to this day and think the
Pope should have chosen less confrontational language," he
says. "But the Pope on another level has revolutionised the
tone of our talks leading us to more realistic and practical
There are signs of hope but the situation can get better or worse
according to the vagaries of the international scene. If Muslims and
Christians are not at peace then the world cannot be at peace.
Reprinted with permission
The Catholic Herald
Britain's Leading Catholic Newspaper
On May 22, 2009, Saint Thomas
Syro-Malamar Catholic Church was consecrated in Doha, Qatar, by
Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil.