09/07/2004, 00.00
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A catacomb Church? Perhaps, but one that is alive and well . . . and universal

by Giuseppe Caffulli

Interview with Mgr Paul Hinder, Auxiliary Bishop of Arabia.

The vitality of a universal and multiethnic church, the serious problems that beset foreign workers, and the growing threat of fundamentalism in Saudi society are some of the issues Mgr Paul Hinder, Auxiliary Bishop of Arabia, touched upon in his interview with Giuseppe Caffulli. The full text of the interview will appear in Mondo e Missione, a monthly published by PIME, as part of a special issue on the delicate situation of Christians in the Middle East. Here is a preview.

For the Bishop, "the situation of the Church in Saudi Arabia is similar to that of early Christian communities. It is a Church that prays, that hopes one day to come out of the catacombs, a Church that is in the hands of capable laypeople at the helm of basic communities."

Although a black sheep in terms of religious freedom, a country where Christians are under the heavy yoke of discrimination, Bishop Paul Hinder describes a place not without its fill of surprises.

A Swiss capuchin, the newly-appointed Auxiliary Bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia now serves the largest ecclesiastical circumscription in the world (over 3 million km2) covering the entire Arabian Peninsula. Countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen come under its jurisdiction, countries that are predominantly Muslim where the situation of Christians varies according to local circumstances.

"Broadly speaking, in most of the Gulf states," Bishop Hinder explains, "religious freedom is guaranteed within a well-defined framework. Currently, we have a parish in Bahrain, another one in Qatar, two in Abu Dhabi, one in Dubai and one in Sharjah (altogether five in United Arab Emirates). We also have four in Oman (two in the capital Mascat), plus four communities in Yemen, a relatively open country but one where there are still open sores after recent episodes of anti-Christian violence.

Arabia is not only Islam's birthplace, but is now a crossroad for vast economic interests, one of the world's hotspots; for the Church, too. It has become a place where a large, multiracial and multicultural Christian community is in the making.

"Christians live under different jurisdictions subject to each emir's religious policy," the Bishop says. "We enjoy freedom of worship within the confines of our parish compound but it is impossible to engage in any public display or activity. Relations with local authorities are generally good. If major problems do develop, it is usually because of some over zealous public servant trained in a school where fanaticism fundamentalisms thrive."

It is hard to say how many Christians there are in the entire peninsula. But those that Bishop Hinder ventures to guess are interesting. "We don't know the exact number of Catholics," he says. "As a rule of thumb, we speak of at least 1.3 million. But I think there are many more. I remember the Filipino ambassador saying that there ought to be about one million of his compatriots in Saudi Arabia, 85 per cent Catholic. That makes 850,000 Catholics. And that's not counting the Indians. Land of paradoxes? Here is another one. Most Catholics in our Vicariate are in Saudi Arabia, a place where we cannot function freely."

Still, even in the heartland of Islam there are some surprises. "It is hard to believe it unless you see it for yourself: crowded churches, great enthusiasm, believers from every corner of the earth. It is a Church full of vitality, a Church in the image of what it means to be Catholic. And yet, we live in a time of instability. We are not sure that what we are doing today is preparing any future. Everything here," Bishop Hinder emphasises, "gets better or worse according to the vagaries of the international situation. The Gulf States survive thanks to US protection, but should the context change or should there be a major terrorist attack, I don't know what could happen."

The Church in Arabia is "made up of Christians from many parts of the world, especially Filipinos, Lebanese, and Indians. In Abu Dhabi's parish we counted 90 nationalities. In the whole Vicariate there are some 60,000 Arab Christians carrying Jordanian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Syrian and Iraqi passport. Immigrants in the United Arab Emirates constitute almost 80% of the population. But they are mostly people who plan to go home or move to the West."

The Bishop is highly critical of social conditions in the area. According to him, "there is a virtual labour racket run by criminal organisations smuggling workers into the Gulf countries. Other if not the same groups traffic in women as well, in particular women from the Philippines and Eastern Europe, who are forced into prostitution. So many women are lured by promises of a job only to find themselves literally enslaved. The same can be said about domestic workers whose working conditions are akin to forced labour. Domestic work! That's another euphemism for slavery. Many of those who do escape come to us and we help them get in touch with their embassies."

Is he an optimist or a pessimist? Bishop Hinder at least does not sweep the problems under the carpet. For instance, what pushes a Christian to embrace Islam? "Not so much conviction," he says, "as a desire to get a job, a promotion, a higher salary, or even to marry a Muslim woman. When it does happen it becomes front page news. By contrast, we would not dare accept a Muslim's conversion to Christianity. It would just be too dangerous not only for the person involved but for the Church as such."

Listening to him one would think Bishop Hinder all doom and gloom; in fact, he sees a silver lining on the horizon, some hopeful signs, however small. "Regardless of the circumstances," he insists, "even though the present situation is not conducive to an open society as we understand it, I think that something will have to give. Otherwise, if the Gulf States do not grant more rights, including religious rights, to immigrants they will be faced by a possible confrontation with them and their countries of origin. I don't think the Gulf States can afford to do nothing."

"Saudi Arabia is already going through a crisis which al-Qaeda terrorists are exploiting to make matters worse. They strike foreign workers to create insecurity and push foreign companies to leave. They know that without such human capital the House of Saud could not survive."

For him, this is why the Church in the Arabian Peninsula is "condemned" to a dialogue of religions and civilisations. "This is something I live at a personal level," he points out. "I have direct contacts with local civil authorities as well as religious leaders. However, being a Church of immigrants in which Arabs are in the minority, our Church has had very few real contacts with locals. With the rise of fundamentalism and the constant danger of terrorism, the political situation has not fostered more open relations. Many local civil and religious leaders who are in favour of greater dialogue are afraid to speak publicly about it. Ant yet, there is no alternative to dialogue and mutual tolerance."

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