As 150 bishops from across the Middle East prepare to gather before Pope Benedict XVI, one of the church's leaders in the UAE reflects on the issues and opportunities of a growing flock.
Christians take list to Vatican
ABU DHABI // The majority of Christians in the Middle East are now living in the GCC and although they are not in conflict zones, their quality of life and ability to worship are often compromised, according to one of the top-ranking Vatican authorities in the country.
Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vicar Apostolic of Arabia at St Joseph's Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, plans to raise the issues next week in the Vatican at a special assembly of bishops from the Middle East. "While there is no denying the danger and threat to Christians in conflict places like Iraq and Palestine, they are a minority," said Bishop Hinder. "The majority of Christians are here, in the UAE, and other Gulf states, and their numbers and needs keep growing."
Bishop Hinder will be joining 150 other bishops, mainly from Middle Eastern locations including Iran, Iraq, and Jerusalem, as they assemble for the upcoming Synod of Bishops in the Vatican. For two weeks, from October 10 to 24, the bishops will be raising issues that the church and its followers are facing in the country they work in. The rare chance to sit in front of Pope Benedict XVI prompted Bishop Hinder, who has been living in the UAE for more than six years, to write up a comprehensive list of issues that he hopes will finally be addressed.
"The focus of the media has been mostly on the security issues of Christians in the Middle East, but there are other more common daily issues facing many of the Christians, such as many of them not being able to even make it to church because their labour camps don't offer transportation," said Bishop Hinder. Unlike Arab Christians, who are citizens of their home countries, most of the Christians living and working in the Gulf are from elsewhere, making their cases even more "delicate" to deal with, he said.
"Because the majority of them are migrant workers and are poor, their voices and needs are rarely heard," he said. "It is not just a matter of a place of worship, but to many of them who are away from their families, the church is their second home. It is their refuge from an often hard life." Migrant workers who have been abused sometimes find sanctuary in the church, where the clergy helps them to contact their embassies and pays for their ticket home.
"We, like other Christian churches, do what we can to help," said Bishop Hinder. There are seven Catholic churches in the UAE, serving more than half a million worshippers, mostly from the Philippines and India. "It is not enough," said Bishop Hinder. "We need more space to be able to properly conduct our services and classes and make them more specific to the needs of the different ethnic groups and their different levels of faith and cultures."
There are also three Catholic schools, one each in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Fujairah. "The Catholic school in Fujairah has Emirati students enrolled in it as well, probably because of the discipline usually found in Catholic schools," he said. "This interest could be further developed if we are allowed to open bigger schools." The church struggles to deal with other internal issues, such as the variety of dialects that need to be accommodated and Arab Catholics who do not like mixing with those from Asia and want their own space and time.
"We are just overwhelmed, and we don't want to turn people away due to limited space or help," he said. St Mary's Catholic Church in Dubai has a regular congregation of 6,000 while St Joseph's Cathedral in the capital and St Michael's Catholic Church in Sharjah each attract 3,400 worshippers a week. Bishop Hinder, who will retire in eight years at the age of 75, has been careful to work within the rules of the UAE.
"There are certain issues that people are not aware of, and we have to inform them when they come asking, such as Bibles translated into Arabic are not allowed to be shipped here, nor is the Church allowed to accept converts from Islam into Christianity," he said. The Vatican established diplomatic ties with the UAE at the ambassadorial level in May 2007. Last December, Archbishop Petar Rajic, 50, a Canadian of Croatian origin, was appointed the Apostolic Nuncio to Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar and the apostolic delegate in the Arabian Peninsula.
In March, he became the Pope's representative in the UAE and Yemen. When he is invited by the foreign ministry of the UAE, he will present his credentials, and then he will be officially the highest Vatican authority. In May the UAE ambassador to the Holy See, Hissa al Otaiba, met the Pope at the Vatican. The visit marked a milestone in diplomatic relations between the UAE and the Vatican. "The challenges we face are not limited to the Catholic Church," said Bishop Hinder. "The Bishop Synod will give us a rare chance to discuss all our issues and find possible solutions to them."
Established by Pope Paul VI, on September 15 1965, the synod is a religious assembly at which bishops meet alongside the Holy See and have the opportunity to share experiences in the common pursuit of practical pastoral solutions. Last year's synod assembly in Africa discussed issues facing churches in Africa and the needs of their pastors.