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Catholics in Arabia

by Richard Rawlinson

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 nevertheless.

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 volatile vicariate.

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 Islamic creed.

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 worshippers."

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 fundamentalism.

"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 inter-religion dialogue."

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.




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