The life of the Church in the Persian Gulf. An interview with the Vicar Apostolic of the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Oman.
“I see myself first of all as a pastor of migrants.” This is how the Swiss bishop Paul Hinder, 76 years old, defines himself. A member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, in 2005 he was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Arabia, a vast territory that included Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. In 2011 the Vicariate was divided: Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia were joined with the Vicariate of Kuwait and became the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia. Yemen, Oman, and the UAE became the new Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, guided by Bishop Hinder. In this area there are about a million Catholics, all foreigners. They are working above all in the fields of construction, education, and domestic work, and come from over a hundred countries. The greatest number are from the Philippines, India, and other parts of Asia. There is also a good number of Arabic-speaking faithful, the majority of which are from Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Beyond this, in recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of Catholics from Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Bishop Hinder, who lives in Abu Dhabi, has written A Bishop in Arabia: My Experience with Islam [Un vescovo in Arabia. La mia esperienza con l’islam (Emi, € 18,00)] which will be out on September 13. In this conversation with Vatican Insider, Bishop Hinder speaks of the life of the Church in the Persian Gulf, which he defines as “of migrants and for migrants.”
Religious freedom is circumscribed in your vicariate. What limitations do the Catholic communities suffer in the individual countries?
“The Constitutions of these countries declare Islam the state religion and make Sharia the main source for legislation. Other religions are tolerated and can have places of worship. For example, the Catholic Church has eight churches (parishes) in the UAE and four in the Sultanate of Oman. Currently we are building the ninth parish church in the western region of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. In the United Republic of Yemen, on the other hand, the pastoral life is paralyzed because of the war. Although there are no limitations on the furnishing of churches, external religious symbols are strictly forbidden. Our places of worship, in general, are located in places that are set apart. Conversions from Islam to another religion are rigorously prohibited. Worship has to take place in those places assigned by the individual governments. In the same way, any assembly of a religious nature must take place only within the structures made available to us for this purpose. It is within these limitations that we carry out our pastoral work.”
What limitations are the most difficult to bear?
“The heaviest limitation is on the times and spaces we have to work with; given the steady increase of the number of the faithful we have trouble organizing catechism and scheduling celebrations of the Eucharist.”
In your forthcoming book you write that life in the Persian Gulf “can be a life, in many ways, on the margins or periphery.” In what way?
“Someone who comes to the countries of the Persian Gulf for work has to be aware that, contrary to expectations, they will not find a gold mine. Life here is precarious, both with regard to a job, which can be lost at any time, and with permission for residency, which is granted for two or three years at most. Furthermore, even if there is something similar to a western lifestyle here, we live in a cultural and religious context that remains foreign. In these countries the integration of foreigners is neither valued nor allowed. People who come here form a parallel, migrant society and in this sense it is ‘marginal’ and of the periphery.”
What is the current situation in Yemen?
“It is unfortunately tragic, but it is difficult to have a clear sense of what is going on; I myself cannot enter the country. One thing is certain: the majority of the population (twenty-seven million) is suffering from the war, sickness, and malnutrition. The number of Christians, which was always small, has been reduced drastically. Currently in San’a there are ten Missionaries of Charity who are doing everything they can to assist the poorest, but in the whole country there is not one priest. The places of worship have been destroyed or made inaccessible. The few faithful who remain are deprived of pastoral care. When will there be a lasting truce or a just peace? Unfortunately we do not know.”
You believe very much in interreligious dialogue. What forms does it take in your vicariate?
“I consider dialogue among religions one of the decisive factors for the development of the world. The dialogue with Islam is obligatory. I believe it is necessary though not easy; the obstacles are never lacking. In the vicariate there have been occasional congresses, mostly organized by Muslim institutions. To these we can add events that involve all the Christian Churches and in which the Holy See has had an important role through the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. But perhaps the most meaningful form of dialogue is that which happens through personal encounter; I think for example of encounters I have had with government representatives, with the minister for religious affairs, for example, with university professors, and with Muslims whom I know and with whom I have become friends. I am convinced that the most fruitful dialogue is that which comes from personal relationships, day by day. Institutional meetings at a high level are certainly useful and necessary, but can also run the risk of becoming overly formalized.”
You consider Abraham “a great source of inspiration for the Christians of the Near East.” Why?
“Abraham is considered the father of the three monotheistic religions and is an important point of reference that they have in common, even though the accounts of him are divergent. Abraham left his homeland and experienced the presence and care of God. He challenges our Church with his act of faith and his courage; for many migrants Abraham is a sign of hope and orientation.”
How do the faithful here live the celebration of the Eucharist?
“Generally speaking, with great faith and admirable attention. Thousands of faithful come to Mass each day. On the weekends the churches are crowded like I have rarely seen in Europe.”
Regarding the Church of the future, you affirm, “I think that we could contribute to reflection with many of our experiences. I believe that on certain points we are further ahead, in our way, than the communities and dioceses of Europe.” What gift do you think your vicariate brings to the rest of the Church?
“I believe that being a Church of migrants gives us a special, perhaps even prophetic, character. We are able to witness to how to live with faith courageously in a non-Christian context. Here the Catholic faithful do not hide their belonging to their religion; they aren’t afraid to show what they are and in what they believe. They are respectful of the Muslim faith, but not cowardly. Theirs is a courage of meekness. Perhaps the Muslims themselves, who aren’t afraid to show their religious belonging, are an encouragement in this. I believe that this courage displayed by our communities could be an example; sometimes in Europe it’s almost as if Christians are ashamed of their faith. Furthermore, on account of the limited number of priests (about sixty-five for a million Catholics), lay people are much more involved than in Europe. Without the freely-given and generous commitment by these faithful, our Church would not have the vitality that we experience. Here the expression ‘the joy of the Gospel’ (Evangelii gaudium) is not empty, but a lived reality. On the one hand, having to count on structures that are relatively weak and very often temporary gives a greater flexibility. On the other hand it provides a permanent challenge; it is not easy to maintain unity and deep communion among faithful of different nationalities, cultures, languages, and rites. It seems to me, however, that the daily effort to maintain unity and communion gives this Church a sensibility that is perhaps lacking in parishes of the older tradition, which are characterized often enough by a ‘nationalistic’ mentality.
What are your Church’s main problems?
“As I noted, one of the greatest is maintaining unity in diversity. To fall back on your own linguistic or cultural group is a real risk for our faithful. For this reason I believe it important that there be a single bishop for the whole flock; in this way we are better protected from the risk of an ‘ecclesiastical tribalism’ that very often makes it hard to see beyond our own little garden. Another problem, which is a challenge for us pastors, is the condition of ‘artificial celibacy’ that characterizes a large part of our faithful, separated as they are from their spouses who remain at home. This can result in emotional problems and behavior that is not exemplary. These are issues that have to faced. Another problem is the injustices experienced by not a few of the faithful and how to assist them in the best way in conflicts with civil authorities and employers. This is a demanding and delicate task. To be a Church made up exclusively of migrants means living in constant insecurity and temporariness; if the economic situation or that of the politics of governments change, our communities feel the consequences right away. It can happen that a significant number of the faithful lose their jobs unexpectedly and have to leave the country.”
You believe that the Church of tomorrow “will be a Church that touches and lets itself by touched. Otherwise it will not exist.” What do you mean?
“The structures of the Church are necessary, but in my judgment, it is the bonds among of the faithful that will be decisive for the Church of tomorrow. Relationships within communities need to become less institutional and more personal, human. When I speak of a ‘Church that touches and lets itself be touched’ I think of Jesus not fearing to risk being with the excluded of his time. Pope Francis always reminds us that the Church will only be alive if it goes out of its place of safety and has the courage to go to the peripheries.”
What are the greatest struggles and joys that you have experienced in these years guiding the vicariate?
“The joys exceed the struggles. I think of the faith and enthusiasm of our faithful, of the commitment of hundreds of women and men in our communities, of the fervor and faithfulness of the priests and religious, and of large, festive celebrations of the Eucharist with thousands of people. Among the struggles I note the difficulties, at times insurmountable, of realizing the many projects that I have in mind, the long, wearying procedures for obtaining the necessary permissions, and the selfishness of certain groups among the faithful that lead to situations of conflict. At times I feel like St. Paul with his communities; full of gratitude and joy when I see their faith, but at the same time worn out by trying to overcome internal conflicts. I go on with peacefulness; I am a worker in the Lord’s vineyard and I know that it is He who makes the fruit grow.
A Bishop in Arabia: My Experience with Islam
“Black and white thinking isn’t enough. No dialogue works that way. The analysis of differences is the enemy of making something emotionally powerful and of real action. When you live in an area like ours, then everything becomes more fragmented, because we have different experiences.” Since 2003 Paul Hinder has been a bishop in the Arabian peninsula, the land that is holy for every Muslim because it was here that Mohammed founded the religion inspired by the Quran. In these pages, for the first time a Catholic bishop recounts what it means for Christians to live in countries governed by the petrodollar sheiks, where the Islamic faith surrounds every aspect of life and religious freedom does not exist except for some freedom of worship. Dialogue between Christians and Muslims is key for peace in the world, and in this sense Bishop Hinder’s direct experience of its difficulties, hopes, and accomplishments is invaluable. Rejecting easy answers in interreligious dialogue and a realist in facing those intersections of living together as religious societies which the West also has to deal with, Hinder offers an example of the hopeful optimism characterized by a lived Christian faith. In this sense he is neither fearful of the other nor ashamed of his own tradition.