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.
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