The opening of the St Francis Xavier parish church in Salalah is an "extraordinary event" in a climate of "great quietness". The main challenges for the migrant community are job loss and prospects for young people. Faith is the only source of stability along with people's enthusiasm. Oman maintains an open position, which gives it flexibility to negotiate amid conflicts.
Abu Dhabi (AsiaNews) – For Oman’s Catholics, the opening of the new church in Salalah, a city "a thousand kilometres south of the capital Muscat" was "an extraordinary event" celebrated by the entire community, said Mgr Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar of southern Arabia (United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen),
The prelate spoke to AsiaNews after returning to the United Arab Emirates from Oman where he took part in the recent inauguration of the St Francis Xavier parish church. "Local Catholics do not often see three bishops and a group of priests and nuns together."
"On the evening of 7 September, celebrations took place with representatives of the government and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The following day we had the dedication of the church and the celebration.”
“The presence of the faithful was not certain because for them it was a work day. Celebrations began at 7 pm and many remained until after 10 pm, and had to walk a long way home. Still, they did everything they could to attend. Their quietness created an extraordinary atmosphere."
The church was built in less than a year and a half on land granted by the sultan. It has a 600-seating capacity, a balcony overlooking the altar and a multi-purpose hall, about a thousand seats in all.
"Oman’s Catholic community is doing well; it is very vibrant,” said the bishop. “We have four parishes, two flourishing in the capital, one in the north and the other in Salalah, in the south."
Are there problems? Losing one’s job is one, the vicar says. “For this reason, quite a few must return to their own country: hence the slight decline in the number of Catholics.”
“This has not yet reached any serious level. However, no one can predict what might happen in the future due to the economic crisis and its impact.” The challenge is "to provide the faithful with a certain peace of mind to cope with uncertainty.”
“Young people are also a concern. Since there are no Catholic schools, it is not easy to keep them in touch with each other. Many return to their home countries after graduation.”
"The situation is very fluid. Like in other countries, the Church in Oman is a Church of migrants, lacking stability. Indeed, faith is our only stability, combined with the enthusiasm of these people who amaze and fill me with joy."
“To ensure greater stability it is important to build other places of worship, which are much needed. At the moment though, there are no new projects. Relations with government and (Muslim) clerical leaders are good. Just yesterday I met the Minister for Religious Affairs to discuss some issues of common interest," the vicar said.
"Relations are good even if there are still no official relations between the Holy See and the Sultanate of Oman. But we are working on that."
Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said is responsible for what some observers call the happiest society in the region. However, he is old and ill, and is faced with the issue of succession whilst holding onto his main principles.
In light of the crises that are shaking the region and the world, Oman has kept a certain neutrality, partly because of its own form of Islam.
The country has tried to maintain good relations with Iran without displeasing the Saudis. This has earned it the title of "the Switzerland of the Middle Eastern". Thus, Oman "has kept a position of overture towards all and this allows it to negotiate amid conflicts.”
The Sultan played a key role in the release of Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, a Salesian priest from India taken hostage a few years ago in Yemen.
More generally, Omani "People are very pleasant,” Bishop Hinder said. “They are not against the presence of foreigners. Personally, I have not had any problems.”
In addition, “the country is an interesting tourist destination, especially now that Yemen is inaccessible” due to the war.