The four nuns served the vulnerable without regard to politics. But they were caught in the middle of Yemen’s disastrous civil war

Mother Teresa’s care home in Yemen’s southern city of Aden was opened in 1992, when its saintly founder was herself ailing. Sixty people, all elderly and many wheelchair-bound, were given shelter there by nuns from India and Africa. Some of those patients were witnesses to the ghastly massacre visited on their carers earlier this month when gunmen, concealing their weapons and pretending to be visiting their parents, entered the convent on March 4. They tied up 12 guards and staff and then shot them in cold blood. They killed four nuns (another, forewarned by the guards’ shouts, hid in a fridge and survived).

And they kidnapped the priest. We are sometimes told, by soi-disant experts in the West, that terrorism is not about religion: partly for this reason, the extent of anti-Christian persecution (by one estimate, responsible for 180 new martyrs a month) is ignored. The same experts claim that the causes of terrorism are social and economic distress. In fact, the terrorists are often wealthier and socially better-established than their victims.

Very little is known about the four new martyrs – Sister Anselm, Sister Reginette, Sister Judith and Sister Marguerite. It is part of the Missionaries of Charity’s total dedication to God that even their families see little of their lives. Sister Anselm, for example, who was born in a remote Indian village, last returned in 2010 for a month in the summer.

“She helped villagers even then,” her brother remembered last week. Forty years ago, her brother took her to join the order after she survived a fall down a well. “I thought that if God had given her another life, it had to be used in His service,” he recalled. “She was helping the poor and old and the downtrodden all through her life.”

The Middle East has seen some gross atrocities in the past decade, and its political intrigues can shock even the most hardened cynic. This massacre of unarmed women, however, has gone unclaimed even by Yemen’s terrorist groups. Most probably it was the work of ISIS, which has grown like a cancer in so many Arab countries in the past years. The killings were also a symptom of Yemen’s deadly and complex civil war, which has exposed this divided, long-troubled country to widespread devastation.

Clockwise from top left: Sister Anselm, Reginette, Judith and Marguerite (Photo: Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia)

Clockwise from top left: Sister Anselm, Reginette, Judith and Marguerite (Photo: Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia)

“Arabia Felix” is what Yemen was called by the Romans: lucky Arabia. It is a name which has a dark irony today. This south-western corner of the Arabian peninsula was once a land of great natural wealth, famous for gold, frankincense and myrrh.

It was home to the Queen of Sheba in the time of King Solomon. In the 12th century it even discovered oil. Its proximity to Africa made it a hub for trade in goods and ideas, and Christian missionaries went to and fro between Ethiopia and Yemen long before Islam. Yemen is poorer than its Arab neighbours but remains wealthier than most African states.

Yet the modern Yemeni state has never been a truly unified one. Its territory is full of mountains and desert, with a thin green coastal strip. Like so many of the mountain ranges of the Middle East, those in Yemen became the refuge of a heterodox form of Islam. The “Zaydis”, as they are called, rejected the Sunni caliphs who were accepted by most Muslims as their legitimate rulers. Instead, they revered their own imams, who were descendants of the Prophet’s family. As such the Zaydis are considered a branch of Shia Islam (but one should not think of Shia Islam as being some kind of formal congregation, as we might have in modern Christianity: most Shia groups had historically no contact with each other and little in common.) These imams held both spiritual and temporal power in Yemen until the 1960s. Their heartland was the mountain range, while the coastline was mainly populated by Sunni Muslims.

Bordering this Imamate in the south was a zone of British control, along the coastal strip around Aden. To the east were various sultanates, also Sunni, which existed under British protection. In the 1960s the imam was overthrown and his country became a military dictatorship, while the former British-ruled areas in the south and east turned into a Soviet-backed socialist state. The two were unified in 1990 after a bloody series of conflicts. Yemen, therefore, is the newest of all Arab states. It is also one of the least successful, with no real system of social care. Mother Teresa’s nuns, however, served the vulnerable without regard to politics.

The order first established itself in Yemen in 1973, at the invitation of the North Yemeni government. The nuns started a home for unwanted children, and visited a nearby community of lepers. This was not easy: a barrier of garbage surrounded the leper village, and the lepers themselves ran away in fear when they saw strangers coming. The nuns ultimately established a proper facility for them called the “City of Light”. They did similar work in three other locations, one of them being Aden. What objection could any person have to this?

But Yemen has become increasingly dangerous and unpredictable. The civil war has seen the country divide along lines which reflect somewhat its old borders. The fighting in the last year or two has been between the Houthis, who are a militant Zaydi revivalist group based in Yemen’s northern mountains, and their largely Sunni opponents who are strongest in the south.

The Houthis have won former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, himself a secular Zaydi, as a powerful ally and Iran as an external source of training and weapons. Their opponents have international recognition and Saudi backing for their chosen leader, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Saudi airstrikes have pounded northern locations for months in an effort to drive back the Houthis, and the ongoing violence and uncertainty has opened opportunities for extremist groups.

Hadi himself is not a fundamentalist: indeed, many of his allies are socialists, surviving from the old South Yemen government. Al-Qaeda and ISIS have, however, taken advantage of the situation to establish themselves, essentially taking over a chunk of the old eastern sultanates. They benefit from the country’s worsening religious divide. The Zaydis were never very close to the Shia of Iran in the past, but the Houthis – provoked, they say, by the preaching of Saudi-backed salafis – have sought help from Iran and taken the Lebanese Hezbollah movement as a model. In return, ISIS – which from its origins has always been mainly an anti-Shia movement – can present itself as a standard-bearer for Sunni resistance.

As extremism flourishes, Christians are ever more endangered. There are few of them in Yemen, but the targeting of the Missionaries of Charity reflects a belief among hardline Islamists that there is no place for Christian churches in the Arabian peninsula. This conviction is based on a comment attributed to Mohammed (not as part of the Koran, but as what is called the Hadith) that there was no room for two religions in Arabia. The remark is an odd one, since Mohammed’s followers had had help from the neighbouring Christian kingdom of Ethiopia when they were in trouble, and Mohammed’s own uncle-in-law was a Christian monk. It does not seem that Mohammed persecuted Christians.

At some point following his death, however, Christian Arab tribes were driven out of what we would now call Saudi Arabia. In more modern times this precedent has been cited with greater frequency. It is used to excuse the banning of churches in Saudi Arabia (a measure that was reinforced in 1980, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran) and, just last year, to call for churches in Kuwait to be demolished. It was also the basis for Osama bin Laden’s angry reaction when American troops came to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to defend it from Saddam.

Not all states in the Arabian peninsula accept this rule. The United Arab Emirates has thumbed its nose at the extremists, allowing more than 40 Christian churches to be built. In Yemen, however, there is a long history of attacks on churches and convents. In 1998 three Missionaries of Charity were shot dead in Hodeida. Last year a Catholic church in Aden was torched.

Fr Alexander Sherbrooke, a parish priest in London, preached a retreat at the Missionaries of Charity’s house in Aden many years ago, and told the Catholic Herald how he remembered it: a house “full of love, full of care. The Sisters always rescue those who are most abandoned and rejected. They’re the ones who always are there to pick up the people who are left in the gutter. And they care for them, they love them, they see them as Jesus. The Sisters will always be in those places where no one else is.” Nor did he think that even now the nuns would leave. “These people are just left to rot, so the Sisters need to be there.”

After the killings in Hodeida, a member of the Yemeni security forces spoke at the funeral of one of the murdered nuns. Perhaps his remarks can give us hope amid the darkness, reminding us that the extremists’ view is a minority one. “Being a Muslim,” he said, “I found your prayers and your church beautiful. I found much more meaning in that all faiths were united, Muslims, Hindus, Anglicans and Catholics. I respect your faith.”

Gerard Russell is a former diplomat whose book on Middle Eastern religions, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, is published by Simon and Schuster UK

This article first appeared in the March 18 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here