The Church in Arabia: I Saw People Crying With Tears of Joy

Vicar Apostolic Speaks of Leading a Church in Muslim Lands

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ROME, MARCH 23, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Bishop Paul Hinder is a 69-year-old Capuchin prelate from Switzerland. He lives in Abu Dhabi, and as the vicar apostolic of Southern Arabia, is responsible for the largest Catholic territory in the world – one covering some 3 million square kilometers (1.16 square miles), in which there are approximately 2 million Christians. 

Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need spoke with the bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia.

Q: What countries are we talking about when we’re speaking of the Arab states?

Bishop Hinder: These six countries would be the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. Then there is another Apostolic Vicariate in Kuwait, which is also a part of the Arabian Peninsula.

Q; It is often said that there are very few, if any, Christians in these areas. Can you tell us a little bit about the Christian presence in these Arab states?

Bishop Hinder: In a sense, it is true that we have no local Christians, but we have many Christians, especially Catholics, migrants from all over the world especially from the Philippines and India. Most of them would be there for a relatively short time although there are quite a lot of people who have been there for 30 to 40 years. All need temporary permits to live there. And of course the public worship is limited.

Q: So there is freedom of worship but no freedom of religion?

Bishop Hinder: The freedom of religion in the sense of the human right is not given, at least not fully given because there is no question that a Muslim citizen could become a Catholic, Christian, or change, in any way, his religion; but we are free, at least in some countries, to practice our own faith.

Q: …but for example, evangelization is not possible?

Bishop Hinder: Evangelization in a sense of mission work towards the adults, especially among the Muslims, is not allowed. It is strictly forbidden.

Q: How are the relations of the Christians with the Muslim community?

Bishop Hinder: I would say it is more a ‘living beside’ than ‘living with’ because of the civil situation or the social situation of the people who are living there. Christians are there doing their job. They are migrants among other migrants. In some countries, they are a large majority of the population and they have, I would say, a professional relationship with the Muslims, but in ordinary life they preferably have relationships with their own people or within their own religion.

Q: So there is very little interaction?

Bishop Hinder: I would say there is generally little interaction except for those who have to interact professionally.

Q: We are speaking of migrant workers while in other countries of the Middle East, there are Arab Christians, who are natives of the land?

Bishop Hinder: Exactly. There is a big difference between these two realities. It has surely to do that our people, including me, normally do not speak Arabic or not well. I have been planted there and I did not expect that. That is why interaction is not so easy, especially with the religious leaders. An imam in any one of the countries does not necessarily speak English and there is immediately a problem of translation … of the language …

Q: You mentioned that you were planted there. Was it a shock for you when you were asked to go to Arabia?

Bishop Hinder: I was shocked when I knew for the first time that I was a serious candidate for this in Abu Dhabi; that was a difficult time. At the moment of my appointment it was no longer a surprise.

Q: If I may be presumptuous, why did they decide on you?

Bishop Hinder: It was John Paul II who appointed me… but I think one of the reasons was surely this: I was a member, at the time, of the General Council of the Capuchin Order, which was in charge of the Arabian mission, as we used to call it at least in the past. Within the General Council I was also in charge of the Capuchins of the Middle East, so I had a slight idea of the realities. Then it should be normally a European to facilitate travel within the different countries; for someone from the Philippines, for example, or India, it might be more difficult to travel than for me. Then surely at the end of the list was the fact that I was a Swiss citizen, which in this situation could have been a positive thing -- the experience of a multicultural country or at least multilingual country.

Q: What was the greatest cultural challenge that you had to overcome?

Bishop Hinder: It was precisely the language. I was quite familiar with, of course German, Italian and French. English was not my language and to be obliged practically from one day to another to speak, to write in English was a heavy burden in the beginning. I never during my lifetime had to speak and preach as often as I do now. So it was really a challenge and it still is because you never have the same freedom as you have in your mother tongue or at least in a language that you are familiar with since one’s youth.

Q: Your Excellency you have achieved a sort of historic breakthrough in the sense that you have helped and worked toward an introduction of the first Catholic Church in Qatar. Can you tell us how this came about?

Bishop Hinder: The merits are not mine. I think this is due a lot to my predecessor, Bishop Giovanni Bernardo Gremoli, who did a marvellous work for the past 29 years; practically all the existing churches in the different countries were renovated or built by him. Then to the people who there in Qatar who worked hard to achieve this; the local Catholics, some ambassadors who have worked for many, many years to prepare the ground until it was possible. I now harvest the fruits from the people who have planted the seeds before.

Q: What sign of hope is the construction of a church that can contain approximately 2,700 faithful?

Bishop Hinder: We have to remember that there were churches here as early as the 1939 in Bahrain and in the late 60s or 70s in the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman. And this is not speaking about the very first church in the peninsula, in Aden, where the mission first started in the 19thcentury. But it is extraordinary for Qatar because the situation is similar to what we have in Saudi Arabia. It is a sign of hope for the Christians living in that country. I remember that day; it was emotional and I saw people crying with tears of joy to finally see their church; let’s say a living room for their faith, and that is something very important as a point of visible reference, where people can gather and celebrate without being at risk. It also shows the openness and generosity of the emir, and also a sign that they would like to be more open, tolerant and to be aware of the realities of the country. There are hundreds of thousands of migrants in the state of Qatar. We do not know the number of Christians, but Catholics number around 200,000. The Filipino population alone is close to that and there are many from India. For them it is something extraordinary -- to have this point of reference where they can go, although for many it is still a problem to get to the church but for those in the capitol, Doha, it is a success.

Q: A lot of conversation has been devoted to how to reconcile and how to move forward together with the Muslim community. One proposal is the encouragement of the separation of faith and state. Is this a possibility?

Bishop Hinder: I would like to make a comparison. Jesus Christ didn’t come and found a state. He didn’t come with military forces. He didn’t come with a social or political project. That came 300 years later in the Christian world when the emperor Constantine opened the possibilities. In the first 300 years, Christians did not exist as a political force, while the birth of Islam is very closely connected to a political and military project. I don’t think it will be easy to overcome this, which is so connected to the beginning of Islam. I don’t say that it is impossible because, I think, that even in the Koran there are elements that can be interpreted for the development of more tolerance regarding other religions; unfortunately there are also other texts, especially in the traditional Islamic doctrine, where we have very heavy stumbling blocks towards these developments. Fortunately, within the Muslim world there are many working towards this but I think it will take time.

Q: Working in the direction of moderation and cooperation?

Bishop Hinder: Yes, Let us take Turkey as an example, which is secular state, but it is not easy for the Christians there because the mentality is marked by a Muslim or Islamic foundation.

Q: What is your hope for the Catholic Church in the Gulf of Arabia?

Bishop Hinder: My hope is that we, Catholics, will not live in fear. I hope for more tolerance. We do not really hide in most countries. We do not really have a problem for example in Dubai. If someone hangs a rosary with the cross in the front mirror of a car it is not a concern.

Q: Is it possible?

Bishop Hinder: Yes, it is not a problem in some countries, but that is not a Christian life because we do everything at a minimum. We should be freer in organizing to live our Christian life in a better way. We just have the minimum in offering the catechism for the children, the minimum Masses and the charitable work in private. As soon as you would like to have a few schools, that becomes difficult because regulations become more demanding. We hope to have a freer space to organize and develop and to have organization or associations, for example like hospitals. Why not? It is not possible now. Immediately if you want to work in an institution you face the Sharia law. You need a local sponsor and the sponsor legally has to own 51%. So you have many limitations, which makes it difficult especially for institutions like the Church. We are not the only ones suffering; every institution faces similar problems. Only for us, it is especially problematic concerning the employees because they demand that a certain percent of the employees have to be locals and the locals are not Christians -- so you can see the consequences that we have to face.

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Conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps”, a weekly TV & Radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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