07/03/2017, 15.53
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For vicar to N Arabia, the crisis between Riyadh and Doha is driving Catholics out of Qatar

Bishop Camillo Ballin noted that several Catholic families have already left in the last few weeks. A "social crisis" is unfolding with many people (including Christians) losing their job. Fear and uncertainty surround the future of the “blockaded country". Saudis extend the deadline for their demands by 48 hours.

Doha (AsiaNews) – Many Catholic families “have left Qatar” in recent weeks due to the ongoing row between Qatar and Saudi-led Gulf states. From a social point of view, it can be called a crisis, which has led "many people to lose their jobs" and "created a situation of uncertainty for the future," said Camillo Ballin, apostolic vicar of Northern Arabia (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain).

The prelate spoke to AsiaNews about the situation of Catholics in Qatar. Most of them are immigrants who have been badly affected by the serious dispute that broke out in June between Riyadh and Doha.

"This situation ends up touching Christians who have no personal interests in local politics," the prelate said. Uncertainty "does not encourage investment and the result is a blockaded country."

The row stems from charges against Qatar that it supports Islamic terrorist groups and, above all, that it maintains diplomatic and trading ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main enemy in the Middle East.

Others contend however that a final battle for Middle East domination is underway between Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood, with serious repercussions on the tourist sector and employment.

Saudi Arabia and three other Arab states have extended the deadline by 48 hours for Qatar to accept a list of demands or face further sanctions. The initial deadline expired yesterday.

According to some sources, the Qatari government, which has called the demands an "affront to international law", is expected to respond in writing.

Qatari Foreign Mohammad bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani in fact has handed a letter signed by Qatar emir to the Kuwaiti government, which is acting as mediator. 

At present, "there are still no definite numbers" about how many Christians have left the country, Mgr Ballin said. However, it is certain that "several families have already gone" and that the number of more than 300,000 Catholics before the crisis "could soon drop."

The local Catholic community is made up of "economic migrants and labourers, largely from Asian countries, especially India, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Pakistan."

Christians work in various fields, some specialised like "nursing, pharmacy, medicine, education". Others are unskilled labourers who do many things "to maintain their families".

"In daily life, there are still no visible effects of the crisis,” Mgr Ballin noted, “because Iran and Turkey are providing the country with all its needs. However, these imports are more expensive and end up affecting poor people."

Many are afraid that if "there are other sanctions or if the countries that froze bank accounts decide to withdraw their money, it will be a tragedy for Qatar. The first to lose will be the poorest."

The impact "is already visible in the labour market and in the fact that large investors are not interested in new projects.”

“Instability is a clear danger that has been unfolding at a regional level since the fall in oil prices. Obviously, there is no shortage of fears about a new conflict in the region with more repercussions, especially on jobs and people’s lives."

The Italian prelate – born on 24 June 1944 in Fontaniva (Padua) – is the first apostolic vicar of northern Arabia since his appointment on 31 May 2011.

"Those who leave are certainly not planning to come back, at least not immediately,” he explained.

Meanwhile, “We try to help those who stay, but it is not easy because the needs are great and the climate of uncertainty does not help. Moreover, the Church cannot provide for thousands of families. If there is no work, the only alternative is to leave."

The prelate warns that the present situation leads to the impoverishment of the local Christian community, and has become a source of "serious concern. That is why I ask you to pray for us and for the dozen priests who are in daily contact with the community."

Qatar's resident population is made up of 313,000 Qatari citizens and 2.3 million expatriates, fluctuating considerably depending on the season and job availability.

Overall, Catholics in Qatar number more than 300,000 (divided into four rites: Latin, Maronite, Assyrian-Malaysian, and Assyrian-Malankarese) out of a total population of about 2.6 million (2017).

Non-Arab foreigners represent the vast majority of the foreign population. Indians are the largest group (650,000), followed by Nepalis (350,000), Bangladeshis (280,000), Filipinos (260,000), Egyptians (200,000), Sri Lankans (145,000) and Pakistanis (125,000). (DS)

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