Bishop Paul Hinder. Wikimedia Commons

Christians in Transit

In the Gulf States, Syria, Lebanon, and the Holy Land there are over 2 million Christians living “as pilgrims." As the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East occurs, Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vicar Apostolic of Arabia, tells what Frontier Catholics expect.
Roberto Fontolan

“Provisional, and pilgrims,” today, we are here; tomorrow, who knows? Bishop Paul Hinder, Vicar Apostolic of Arabia, has no illusions. With the realism characteristic of this Capuchin friar, born 68 years ago in Switzerland, he narrates dates and figures of the Church’s presence in the lands of the founder of Islam–a presence which Bishop Hinder knows very well. Since 2005, he has been the leader of the largest Catholic circumscription in the world, covering a territory of 3 million square kilometers, between the Syrian Desert and the Indian Ocean, where English is the new Latin, since the 2.5 million Catholics here come from all over the world: from the Philippines, from India, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, USA… In the midst of enormous difficulties, they live the faith in a way that is “a consolation even for their pastor” so much so that Bishop Hinder told the Pope one day, “I never aspired to be a bishop but, if I have to be, I prefer to lead faithful like these in Arabia.” This is why, as the special Synod on “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness,” which is taking place October 10-24th in the Vatican, involving hundreds of participants, including bishops, non-Catholic representatives and Muslim observers, we asked him to present the situation of his communities and what they expect from this Synod.

How would you describe the reality of Christians in the Gulf States?
It is marked by two characteristics: they are all foreigners, that is to say, temporary residents without citizenship, coming from almost every country in the world, especially from the Philippines and the Indian sub-continent; and they live in countries where there is limited religious freedom and freedom of worship. On the other hand, the faithful are on the whole very committed and motivated in living their faith within the limits set by others. Then, since the number of priests serving the 2.5 million Catholics is only about 60, the collaboration of lay people is essential.

What difference is there between the Christians living in the Arab peninsula and those in the Eastern Mediterranean states?
The difference from countries like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and others is that in the Gulf, there are no Churches of ancient tradition: all the Christians are migrants without citizenship. This means that we have no ancient structures. Since religious freedom and freedom of worship are limited, we cannot have the structures that a local Church normally enjoys, like a seminary. It’s true that we have Christians of all the Eastern Catholic Churches, but they, too, are migrants. The Church in the Gulf, having many nationalities and many rites, has many languages, but the lingua franca is English, because Arabic is used only by the more important communities of Arabic tongue.

What are your expectations for the Synod?
The theme of the Synod is “Communion and Witness.” I expect a greater sensibility for both these aspects. In the whole region, the communion between Christians is often very precarious because it is subject to the interests of tribal and/or family traditions. Now, a sense of belonging is something good, but when we lose sight of true Catholic Communion, we run the risk of not looking beyond our own garden; our own garden, though, can survive only in a much larger and broader healthy environment. In other words, we need internal communion, but also communion with the greater Catholic Church. If communion breaks down, so does the witness.

What do you mean?
Evangelical witness to reconciliation, to justice and to deep Christian fraternity will bear fruit in the political and social environment only if it is first of all lived amongst us. It is not rare to see, even amongst Christians, a kind of exclusivism that tends to marginalize those who are “not our people.” On the other hand, in all our countries, Lebanon included, Christians are in a minority. Will they be able to show a united and credible front? I am somewhat afraid that during the Synod we may get lost in questions of history, of traditions and rites, losing sight of the challenge of the present situation on the fundamental points of our Christian and Catholic faith, including our communion with the Pope.

What does the community you lead expect from the Synod?
Up to now I have not seen much enthusiasm among the people. This is certainly due to the fact that it is not easy to circulate information. Then, in the crisis, the people have other things to worry about: not losing their jobs, living in economic insecurity… All the same, I think our faithful expect the reality of their life, not very well known in the wider reality of the Catholic Church, to be given more attention and that the others get to know that there is a living community in the Gulf, even though it is made up of migrants.

How do these migrant Christians live the relationship with their faith in the new environment?
It’s a wonderful experience to see, in the Church of the migrants in the Gulf, that the faith brings us much more, because there is nothing else that brings us security. It is true that all of them have come to the region in search of better material circumstances. However in this situation not a few discover a strong need to care for their faith. All the more if they don’t want to risk losing it. Of course, in a society like ours where Islam has the monopoly, we cannot live Christian values in such a way as to offer a contribution building them. But the very way in which we live the faith creates challenges for others and strengthens solidarity amongst the Christians themselves.

As it is impossible to set down roots where they are, how do these Christians live in relationship to the social environment?
Not being truly rooted in society makes us live what is provisional. No one knows for sure how long he will be able to stay in a country. Many live in a very artificial situation, in residential areas where they are in contact with people coming from the same countries as they have, in labor camps where they return every evening tired with work, many of them separated from their husbands and wives, with the moral and affective problems that this can cause. It is true that there are those who have risen in society thanks to their professional ability and economic success, but, generally, our people live in modest conditions and enjoy little social esteem. They are people necessary for the machine to work, but not necessarily loved or esteemed.

Could we say that it is truly a “Pilgrim Church”?
Yes. As I mentioned, we do not have the structures of a “normal” Church. The Christian who arrived yesterday, like the bishop himself, is in transit. This makes us feel the pilgrim nature of the Church more strongly than elsewhere.

The languages, the cultures and the traditions of the Christians who come to the Gulf are extremely varied. Is it Babel or a mosaic?
Our communities are made up of people from all over the world, though the vast majority come from Philippine and Indian origins. You just have to look on the notice board for the Mass times: apart from English, you find Tagalog, Malayam, Arabic, Konkani, Tamil, Singhalese, Urdu, French, Italian, German, and Spanish.

What message comes to the Christians of the West and to those of the Eastern Churches?
I think precisely this experience of being provisional, being pilgrims, should also mark other Churches, more, and also the intercultural, interracial, and interritual communion can be an example. For us, the first challenge is to be a convinced believer. Only later comes the question, “Which group do you belong to?” Solidarity amongst Christians and their sensitivity for the needs of others is in some way a model. I see it when there is a disaster in some part of the world. The generosity of the faithful in sharing what they have with those in need amazes me always.

What are the most lively realities, and what do they ask of you?
Usually our few parishes are overcrowded for all the many Masses. We sense the enthusiasm and the living faith of these people and it is a comfort for a pastor of the Church in Arabia. What these faithful ask of us is that the Bishop and the priests be faithful and joyful witnesses of the Lord. That they be servants of their joy and companions in their sufferings. But it is rare for them to expect help from us in relational and economic problems, and other problems…

How are the relationships with the Emirates and of Arabia?
Usually the official representatives of other religions, above all of the Christian Churches, enjoy the respect of the authorities. I have never felt looked down on by the authorities. They still practice the culture of hospitality, even though in taking decisions they are much more cautious and slow. But it can easily happen that in a reception, a sheik in traditional dress publicly embraces a bishop wearing a pectoral cross.