In Abu Dhabi, the Catholic community of St Joseph’s Cathedral and St Thérèse Church nestles beside Anglican, Orthodox and Evangelical churches. Watching over this little Christian enclave is the four-minaret Mary, Mother of Jesus mosque next door. As the call to prayer pierces the air, parish priest Fr Johnson Kadukanmakal observes: “It’s a bit of a problem when worship is held outdoors. Services need to stop for several minutes to avoid competing.” This is, after all, the Arabian Peninsula, which the Prophet Mohammed said was reserved for Muslims, according to a hadith.
The Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia covers the United Arab Emirates (UAE, where Abu Dhabi is located), Oman and Yemen. When I meet the Apostolic Vicar, Bishop Paul Hinder, the Indian priest Fr Tom Uzhunnalil (now released) is still in captivity in Yemen. The bishop was worried that recent publicity might have jeopardised the chance to free him. “We have to be a very quiet Church,” he says. “Our situation is very delicate.”
Before the Vicariate was restructured in 2011, Bishop Hinder oversaw the UAE, Oman, Yemen, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Reflecting on Saudi Arabia, he says: “There are 1.5 million Catholics in Saudi, mostly from the Philippines, but there is no formal Church. We are dependent on the diplomatic residences for services and secret Masses, taking believers back to the catacombs. The authorities know we are there and we are tolerated. Different denominations will fly clergy into the embassy, but we need to keep a low profile. No collar or religious symbols are allowed. The late King Abdullah started allowing private worship, but couldn’t guarantee protection if there were complaints about noise, parking or music. Things have improved. King Abdullah visited the Pope, though it was more symbolic than reality.”
The UAE is vibrant, but as in Saudi Arabia, the Church is pragmatically tolerated rather than embraced. “We are dependent on the political situation,” Bishop Hinder says. “At the moment, the diplomatic strategy for UAE is to be the good boy in world opinion. The legacy of Sheikh Zayed, the founder of UAE, is one of toleration, so I’ve always been met with great openness, respect and friendship.”
The Catholic Church’s institutional nature helps. “The authorities like to have a structure to deal with. They know who they are speaking to, which is not the same for other denominations,” the bishop explains. “Catholics are around 80 per cent of Christians. We have our contacts with others, a good relationship. But like an elephant, we have to take care not to trample on others.”
A former professor, Bishop Hinder hails from Switzerland. He joined the Capuchins in 1962, studying canon law in Munich and Fribourg. He is a member of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples and the idea of the “migrant Church” is close to his heart.
“Migrants are the most active in the faith,” he says. “We sometimes forget we are a migrant Church. It is deep-rooted, in the people of Israel and the first Church, which was a migrant Church. What we experience here is that we have a weak institutional structure, but this maybe helps us to lift certain dimensions of the Gospel.”
Spending time with the bishop and Fr Johnson is an uplifting experience. I visited on a Friday and saw a wide range of activities. Before Mass there was a long queue for the grotto (though Fr Johnson insisted it was shorter than usual). As I walked through the cathedral, a service for the Pakistani community was just finishing with rousing singing. Evening Mass in the parish church was standing room only. “Those who can, prefer Sundays,” says Bishop Hinder. “But Friday is the main day. The big festivals are an extraordinary experience. They are traditional to attend, so we will get 8,000 to 10,000 people on site.”
Bishop Hinder says that this is what he’ll miss when he retires soon (he has just turned 75). He has mixed feelings about going home. “I like my country, faith and family,” he says. “But it is too cold now, and I don’t just speak about the weather. Not to generalise, but people have lost their joy of God back home. I am well placed to see, but I sometimes have difficulties to understand why too many people are spitting into the soup before they eat it, so it is hardly surprising they lose their appetite.
“I have rediscovered in these simple people here their joy. They are exposed to what could be called an unfriendly environment, but when newcomers arrive many are activating their faith. People here are often more active than they were back home.”
His flock become ambassadors when they move on. “The people here are open, collaborative, helpful. Many of them leave from here for America and Canada, and I tell our people and catechists our experience may be of service to our Church. Material wealth will not save us; it is the living people. People here may be more open – naïve maybe, but I have come to respect this naïvety. It is easier to correct too much enthusiasm than to motivate the tired and depressed.”
Beneath the surface, however, this remains a hard place to minister. Most Catholics are economic migrants and many are working under difficult labour and social conditions. “We give what limited support we can in legal assistance, help with those imprisoned, repatriation, paying for visas, tickets or smaller debts so they can leave or find a new employer. This needs to be done very low profile, as we can’t expose helpers. The country doesn’t like to look at the problematic aspects: it has to shine. The letter of the law remains dead. There is no official recognition of the extent of human trafficking.”
As I stand in the courtyard, hearing the call to prayer, I am reminded that the Church here sits under the constant oversight of the Islamic authorities. I am left to reflect on Bishop Hinder’s latest pastoral letter, in which he says that, “as migrants, we may realise more than others what it means to live the eternal in the provisional”.
Dr David Cowan is an author and critic