11/26/2013, 00.00
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A spiritual retreat in Dubai keeps the faith alive among migrants in the Middle East

by Nirmala Carvalho
Fr Errol Fernandes, a Jesuit, talks to AsiaNews about Christian workers bearing witness o their faith in the countries of the Persian Gulf. From 4 to 6 November, the priest led a spiritual retreat in Dubai on the occasion of the Year of Faith, on behalf of Churches that exist because of the presence of migrants. Wherever freedom of religion exists in Arab countries, Christianity is alive and vibrant. For the clergyman, those who are persecuted live like Christ and their witness brings new life to the Church.

Mumbai (AsiaNews ) - "Asian migrant Christians keep the faith alive in the Middle East," said Fr Errol Fernandes SJ, principal at St Xavier's College in Mumbai, who spoke to AsiaNews about the many retreats he has organised in recent years around the world, including the Arab world and the Persian Gulf (except for Saudi Arabia).

Fr Fernandes described his experience among Christian migrants, and spoke about the pope's call "not [to] resign ourselves to imagining a Middle East without Christians" last Thursday during the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. Indeed, the pope cares about the situation of Christians who suffer persecution and restrictions in Syria, Turkey, Egypt and other places.  "Fear should never govern our lives," he added citing Francis. "This means that everyone should be free and wherever they live, they should have the opportunity to practice their faith."

From 4 to 6 November, Fr Fernandes led a prayer retreat in Dubai (United Arab Emirates) titled 'Rekindle the Fire'. For the clergyman, the Dubai meeting was an opportunity to experience the overall theme of the Year of Faith, which calls on the faithful to invigorate our beliefs, return to our roots and look with confidence and courage towards the future.

In your view, can the overwhelming response to prayer retreats by many Asian Christian migrants in the Middle East be a sign of hope for Christianity in the Middle East?

In recent months, many people have written to me to say that they were helped by the discussions and activities that took place at the retreats. Although many letters express an individual point of view, I am convinced that somehow these experiences will also seep into the community as a whole.

I always thought that if we let Him act, God can do great miracles. This is the reason why I continue to pray for God to stop me from interfering with the suggestions of the Holy Spirit, which speaks in a language that everyone can understand.

In your recent retreat in Dubai, what situation did you find with respect to the risks Christians endure in Syria and Egypt?

I have been to many countries in the Middle East at different times, but I especially visited those in the Gulf: Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. In all these countries, Christianity is alive and vibrant. The Church runs many facilities and in recent years, local rulers have been tolerant towards Christianity.

Although I have no news about the actual situation of Christians in Syria and Egypt, it is a historical fact that wherever the religion of Christ was persecuted, it has always flourished. Jesus lived his life amid persecution and hardships. Those who live in the same state have the power to do as He did.

How was the retreat in Dubai?

The theme was "Rekindle the fire." Fire is a powerful symbol and can mean many things. It may indicate the Holy Spirit, often depicted as tongues of fire, or it may represent the fire of Jesus when He chose to begin his mission, as in the Gospel of Luke: "I have come to set the earth on fire". The flames may also represent what burns in our heart, which must be always rekindled with the light and the gift of faith.

The general theme of the Year of Faith was about returning to our roots, an invitation to go with confidence and courage towards the future. I hope this retreat has been a starting point for such a journey.

What is the situation for migrants in Dubai? Can families live their faith?

In the UAE, some migrants have found good jobs with decent wages, enough to live a comfortable life. These families are grateful to the leaders of the countries in which they live for their good will and for the benefits they receive. Unfortunately, there are many people who find it difficult to survive, but they stay because their situation is better than at home.

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