10/11/2010, 00.00
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Church in Israel and Arabia, mission and religious freedom

Christians must leave their ghetto and stop being inward looking. They bear witness through their work, pilgrimages and daily ecumenical work. The Vicariate of Arabia is home to more than 100 nationalities. Despite the lack of full religious freedom, the Church is alive.

Milan (AsiaNews) – The Churches in the Middle East have an urgent need to rediscover witness and unity, a conference held on Saturday at the PIME offices in Milan concluded. Sponsored by Mondo e Missione and the Segretariato Unitario Animazione Missionaria (SUAM), the event came on the eve of the Synod of the Middle East. Mgr Paul Hinder, vicar apostolic of Arabia, and Mgr Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, vicar of Israel at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem were among its keynote speakers.

“Our Churches are not missionary enough,” said Mgr Marcuzzo, who has lived in the region for 50 years. “In the past, Christian communities in the Middle East had a strong missionary impulse (recent discoveries indicate that Nestorians reached Tibet in the early centuries of Christianity). Today instead, we are too closed, ghettoised, inward looking because of circumstances that forced us to be this way.”

Fortunately, there are ways of bearing witness, the bishop said. “Our work speaks on our behalf (schools, hospitals, etc.), so do our Holy Places (a Jew in Nazareth inevitably has questions about Jesus), and our pilgrims coming from around the whole world to pray, not sightseeing.” In addition, Christians are promoters of peace, ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue at many levels, “and that,” the bishop insisted, “is already mission”.

When it was his turn, Mgr Hinder spoke about the situation of his mission, that of the Vicariate of Arabia, which includes a big part of the Persian Gulf (not included: Kuwait, home to 3 million Christians, and Saudi Arabia, where religious freedom is denied but is host to at least 1.5 million Filipinos). In this part of the world, the Church has only transient foundations, since almost all of its members are foreign-born, and yet it is full of life and rich in faith.

The territory covered by the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia is huge. “My normal means of transportation is the plane,” the bishop said. It is home to 2.5 million Catholics, from more than 100 nationalities, served by about 60 priests, seven parishes in the United Arab Emirates, four in Oman, four small ones in Yemen, one in Bahrain (plus a second one in the near future) and one in Doha, Qatar.

“My experience is that of the multiplication of the loaves.” Because Christians are immigrants, “they are not first-class citizens,” they “lack religious freedom and full freedom of worship,” and are seen “as temporary”. Because these countries do not see themselves as countries of immigration, “they do not want integration”.

Yet, we “are able to offer the faithful the sacraments and catecheses”, this despite “some problems”, like the large number of people coming to Mass on Friday—on major holidays, Mass is celebrated at least ten times in various languages—or the thousands of children who attend catechism (6,000 in Dubai, 4,000 Abu Dhabi, etc.).

“Our mission is a real daily miracle, made possible by the great fervour of the laity. We do need more apostolic personnel. However, when I ask for more priests sometimes, [government authorities] answer with their own question, ‘Don’t you have enough?’ Still, I am grateful to them for allowing us to do what we are doing now.”

In answering a question about his expectations vis-à-vis the synod, Mgr Hinder said, “First, I hope it will raise awareness about the vitality of our Church, which is the home to most Catholics in the Middle East. Our experience as a pilgrim Church, strongly touched by migration, is an interesting ‘laboratory’ for all the Churches of the world.”

“Secondly, I hope the synod will help us live in communion because one of the curses of the Middle East is that in spite of all the nice words there is so much jealously about one another, with everyone tempted to tend to their own little garden.” (GF)

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