03/16/2016, 12.08
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The Church of Arabia "is young and active, at the service of families that are separated and distant"

Msgr. Camillo Ballin, Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia, speaks to AsiaNews about a community of "various rites and languages". The problem of "spaces" for a constantly growing reality. No particular restrictions on religious freedom "with some differences", among governments.  The fight against exclusion and loneliness. Preparations for Easter celebrations.

Kuwait City (AsiaNews) - The pastoral challenge is to "bring together various rites and languages. In Kuwait alone, we have six rites and 13 different languages, so it is important to find a unity while respecting the individual traditions ". Another problem "is spaces, because often the churches were built 40 years ago, when the number of faithful was much smaller. Today the numbers are greater and we need more capacious buildings, but it is not easy to obtain permits for construction in some countries”, says Msgr. Camillo Ballin, Apostolic Vicar of Arabia Northern (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain).  The prelate speaks to AsiaNews of a different reality to Yemen, where Missionaries of Charity were recently massacred. "The faithful can go to church - he adds - and there are no obstacles on the part of governments, with a few differences”.

Msgr. Camillo Ballin was born June 24, 1944, in Fontaniva, in the province of Padua. He was ordained a priest in the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus on March 30, 1969 at Castelleto sul Garda, in the province of Verona. The following year he moved to Lebanon and Syria to learn Arabic, a language he became fluent in. On 14 July, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him apostolic vicar of Kuwait. On 31 May, 2011, Msgr. Ballin became the first Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia.

In Bahrain, says Msgr. Ballin, "the king gave land for the construction of the vicarage church." This, he adds, is an "open attitude, one of encouragement and dialogue." In addition, the monarch "has granted me a passport and citizenship" and this "allows me to travel without limitations" within the Gulf countries. An essential element, and one that has encouraged dialogue and understanding, continues the Apostolic Vicar, "is knowledge of the Arabic language".  This has garnered the prelate respect and authority among the Arab leadership, who usually, "must address dignitaries, diplomats and foreign personalities who are not familiar with Arabic in English”.

Data dating to 2014 says there are nearly 2.5 million Catholics (a large majority economic migrants) out of a total of 36.2 million inhabitants in the territory. There are about 60 priests, two deacons; ten parishes throughout the region in which 40 men and 18 women religious work. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, where worship other than Islam is prohibited, there is substantial religious freedom and there are no particular restrictions on the profession of ones’ faith.

In Kuwait there is a small number of Protestants, about 200 people, and four local Catholic families "but they will eventually disappear," explains Msgr. Ballin. In Bahrain "there are some naturalized Christians, but local Christians no". "All of our faithful - he says - are immigrants, who come to work and in some cases spend most of their life here”. It is a melting pot of races, languages, nationalities for which it is necessary to "encourage encounters, use of the native language, familiarize people with the different mentalities which must coexist in the same place".

The local Church, as described by Msgr. Ballin, is "young and active" even if "only 35% are able to attend Mass and functions." Others,  says the bishop, "are often unable to do so because of their working conditions, because they do not have even one day of rest".

 Moreover, Catholics cannot engage in social activities to avoid being accused of proselytizing or meddling in the internal affairs related to labor rights. "There is more freedom of movement in the [private schools] - Msgr. Ballin adds - although in some states the study of the Koran is required and the teaching of catechism prohibited "even in Catholic-run institutions.

Even in the face of difficulties and partial restrictions, the work of the Church is essential for immigrants who often live in conditions of marginalization and seclusion, far from family, friends, loved ones. "We have many cases of single people, men and women - says the Apostolic Vicar - who left everything and everyone in India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. And this creates moral, human problems,  of discouragement, frustration, depression; some of them are not even paid for the work done and the economic crisis, exacerbated by the fall in oil revenue, has worsened the situation even more”.

Organizations, movements (among them the Couples for Christ and the Neocatechumenals) work in contact with people, language groups, giving rise to spontaneous groups who gather to pray. "Inside a house, in one of these countries - says the prelate - I found a group that meets weekly to pray ... and this is the only diversion they have, the only entertainment! And for others, this loneliness becomes prime condition for building a stronger relationship with the Lord".

For Lent, Msgr. Ballin asked the preachers of every parish to hold retreats and reflections. However, in this Year of Mercy "I insisted that the preachers also be available for confessions, granting them the opportunity to absolve all sins". Confession has a central role in preparation for Easter and in the context of the Jubilee Year. Meanwhile, the community is preparing the celebrations of Holy Week, which is experienced "with great intensity."

"I will be in Kuwait - says Msgr. Ballin - and there will be lively and enthusiastic communities waiting for me. For them, the presence of the bishop is a source of encouragement to continue in the faith. In Bahrain and Qatar I wear my cross and when they see me, Christians feel invigorated and encouraged in their faith"(DS).

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