The Catholic Challenge in an Arab State

Author: Paolo Brocato

The Catholic Challenge in an Arab State

Paolo Brocato

Practicing faith in 'conditioned freedom'

"Christians, wherever they may be, have the possibility of living their faith even in the most difficult circumstances and conditions. Thus a Christian witness tends to be possible even in a frontier land, such as the United Arab Emirates, where glaring and historical social, cultural and religious meet the eye. The same can be said of a Bishop's service".

These are the words of Bishop Paul Hinder, Vicar Apostolic of Arabia, who after speaking at the Rimini Meeting also spoke to our newspaper on the situation of Christians in Islamic territories.

"If I have to be a Bishop, I want to be a Bishop in Arab territory". Bishop Hinder, a Capuchin friar who is 66 years old and a native of Switzerland, thus recalled the wish he expressed directly to Pope John Paul II at the moment of his appointment.

He has been Vicar Apostolic of Arabia since March 2005 and governs approximately two million Catholics in the peninsula. He lives in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates "almost in the shadow of one of the largest mosques in the country which is so close that I can practically touch it from my office".

In geographical terms, with a territory of about three million square kilometres, his "diocese" is the largest in the world. Its population represents 90 different races and embraces countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Filipinos and Indians account for the majority of the faithful but there are also a multitude of Indonesians, Nigerians, Europeans and North Americans. There are no local Christians but only immigrants, "including the Bishop", Bishop Hinder said with a hint of irony. "We are 100 percent a pilgrim Church".

"Of course, we have to adapt ourselves somewhat to the situation of a Muslim country in which we do not have the same conditions and possibilities that we would have in other countries", the Prelate stressed.

"However, looking at our faithful, I must admit that I do not have the impression that they believe any less than others who have greater freedom of action. On the contrary, I have the impression that specific contexts in which it is harder to express and to bear witness to faith may perhaps be an enrichment".

Bishop Hinder spoke of the possibility of a more incisive witness. However, the problems are many and varied. For example, unmistakable difficulties persist in the relationship of reciprocity with the Muslim community.

"Reciprocity as we normally understand it in Europe does not exist for the reasons I have already mentioned: the deep diversity in the historical, social, cultural and religious dimensions. Of course this favours the need for reciprocity; but I have to admit, looking at the present situation, that more time and sometimes greater patience are necessary, if not actually a search for different ways in which to relate".

The way toward others is at the same time both personal and communitarian and not devoid of risks. One of the many dangers in the Bishop's opinion is the "tendency to arrogance that we have in our culture and not only concerning Islam. We tend to consider ourselves the peak of humanity's development; but this is not right", he explained, "because not all peoples are obliged to have the same history".

There are also other ways of living the dichotomy between the modern world of technology and the past of one's own history and religion.

"I am also convinced that the Muslim world must be more open to reason in accordance with a process we have also been through. However, this does not mean that it must lead them to secularism". Therefore he asked for "humility in relativizing" the final outcome.

Again with regard to interreligious dialogue the Vicar Apostolic of Arabia recalled that "we must be honest and respectful, but insistence on reciprocity in the mathematical sense does not work".

"First of all, the concept of democracy according to the Western mindset", Bishop Hinder pointed out, "is the result of a long process that the Church also found difficult to accept. Democracy and rights as we know them cannot be imposed, because they are the fruit of a journey which is not necessarily the one that the Arab Emirates must take".

In Arab countries, political life is permeated with a sense of religion and it is precisely this that hinders the understanding of a concept such as that of a liberal European State. "For Muslims, faith is an integral part of life", the Bishop said, "and the term 'reciprocity' is invested with an ambiguous meaning that is not well tolerated".

More generally, according to the Prelate, it is necessary "to increase dialogue with the authorities, explaining to them the actual situation in which Christian faithful live, especially the most marginalized, those for whom access to our centres is difficult, those who suffer serious financial difficulties.

''It is a question of reviving the process of dialogue through renegotiation. This does not exclude the fact that outside the Arabian peninsular an effort is also being made to remind these Governments to listen to their people, to grant Christians greater freedom of action in the various contexts of daily life".

In any case, in Arabia "the Church is very lively even if she is not very visible". And, "precisely because we are not nobodies we are protagonists", the Prelate stressed, referring to the theme of the Rimini Meeting (Either protagonists or nobodies).

"We are living in a state of 'conditioned freedom', although a distinction must be made between liturgical life and faith lived in the personal milieu".

"The situation", Bishop Hinder said, "is very different in the Vicariate Apostolic of Arabia although freedom of worship exists in almost all countries, except Saudi Arabia which is the only nation that has no place where Catholics (more than 800,000) can gather to pray.

"They do so in private homes often located in peripheral zones. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia does not in fact prohibit prayer in private places as long as it does not create a disturbance. In every parish there is a chapel dedicated to Our Lady in which Muslims pray too. Churches have no external signs or visible symbols such as Crosses or bell lowers".

The scarce number of priests recently impelled some communities to entrust their guidance to lay people. Christians in Arabia must keep in touch, Bishop Hinder said. "Distances are great, sometimes priests are far away, but that does not mean that the life of faith or prayer are interrupted.

"There are groups, movements and associations that continue their extraordinary work even if, in some circumstances, we have to be attentive and offer them our advice so that they remain within the Catholic Church's vision and Magisterium".

In particular an effort is made to give, in as much as it is possible, precise directions in the difficult terrain of language. Indeed, it is more obvious than ever that prudent language is necessary to avoid giving rise to interpretative ambiguities either internally, reducing the message, or externally.

"In spite of this, on our part", Bishop Hinder said, "people are very devout, with a profound commitment and a faith which in many circumstances truly amazes me". The Vicar Apostolic concluded, "since for me Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, I must proclaim him even if it might sound like an insult to some people".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 September 2008, page 8

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