SAR NEWS STORIES – One Diocese, 6 Countries, 3 Million Catholics

Two and half million Catholic youths in their late teens, others in their twenties, live alone in desert work camps, on oil pipelines or platforms. For lack of means of transport or permission from employers (female domestic helps in very large Islamic families) cannot attend Mass even on Christmas and Easter. Some faithful fall easy prey to evangelical sects and Islam. Add to that another half a million Catholics hailing from South India, the Philippines, Egypt and Lebanon living with families.
Welcome to the Vicariate of Arabia, territorially the largest diocese in the world, comprising 12 Islamic countries (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Yemen and the seven countries of the United Arab Emirates).

No Statistics for Migrants:

“On my arrival, in 1976, Catholics in the vicariate were about two lakhs. Today they number at least three million,” says Bishop Emeritus Giovanni Bernardo Gremoli, in an interview to Italian magazine ‘30Giorni’, Jan-Feb, 2006. “At Sunday Mass in St. Mary’s Cathedral Dubai, once we conducted a census to find where the faithful hail from. We registered 93 nationalities. However, a large part is Indians and Filipinos. The latter number about a million in Saudi Arabia alone,” recalls Bishop Gremoli who has witnessed the Gulf migrant worker explosion since mid-1970s. “There are no statistics neither regarding the number of Catholics nor about those fallen victims to the evangelical sects or become Muslims,” says the new bishop of the vicariate, Swiss national Paul Hinder OFM Cap.

Two months ago, ten evangelical house churches and Kerala Catholic Association Centre were closed in Bahrain for violation of government regulations.

“To my mind the problem is less the sects than a growing materialistic practice of life. We should not forget that people came to the Gulf – and are still coming – with only one purpose: to make money for themselves, for their families, for their future.”

“There is the risk that a certain number of people are willing to sacrifice everything – even their religion – for money. However, I would not exaggerate their number,” insists former Definitor General of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchins, Bishop Hinder.

What pushes a Christian to embrace Islam? “Not so much conviction,” says the bishop, “as a desire to get a job, a promotion, a higher salary, or even to marry a Muslim woman. When that happens it becomes front page news.”

He further adds, “At parish level we hold faith formation programmes for youth according to the needs of the many nationalities. The different associations and prayer groups help people in their faith formation and faith practice.”

There are 20 parishes in the vicariate with 55 priests (11 Diocesans, 37 Capuchins and 7 Salesians) and about 70 Sisters from six Congregations (23 M.C. Sisters in Yemen) and the rest in Bahrain, UAE and also Yemen.

Eight Catholic Schools in 6 Countries:


The vicariate established in 1888 and entrusted to the OFM Capuchins have eight schools (seven in UAE and one in Bahrain) all directed by nuns (Indian Carmelites, Italian Combonians, Baghdad Chaldees, Sisters of the Rosary of Jerusalem).

More than 60 per cent of over 16,500 students in the Catholic schools are Muslim. There is a government obligation to impart religious instruction for three hours weekly to all students. The schools therefore give lessons in Islam to all the Muslim children, lessons in Christianity to all Christian children, moral principles based on natural law to all the non-Christian and non- Muslim children.

“At the present time for new schools, even if we got the permission, we would have difficulties to have the necessary funds,” says Bishop Hinder.

“I have already invited a religious institution to open a school provided that they have the financial resources, and they respect the general rules of the Canon Law and, of course, the rules of the respective country,” says Bishop Hinder.


Seven Salesian Presences in the Gulf:


In the UAE, the Chennai province has a presence in Fujairah started in 2007 and Kolkata province has an unofficial presence in Sharjah since 1993.

“I am running a full-fledged music institute in Sharjah catering to about 1,000 students. It is officially recognised by the Ministry of Education, Dubai (UAE) with approved certificate courses. The activities include learning of musical instruments, drawing, painting, sketching, coloring, dancing and singing, personality development and time management.”

“There are other possibilities like computer, leadership training, spoken English, management courses and many other courses useful for the younger generation,” says founder director of Rhythm Music Institute, Father Tomy Kuruvilla.

“There have been questions about our presence in Kuwait. Why should Salesians go to a rich country? Only a very small percentage of the expats can be considered ‘rich’. Ours is an evangelising presence – mostly by way of witness. Don Bosco reaches where the name of Christ cannot be taken, as former Rector Major Vigano’ used to say,” recalls Mumbai provincial Father Ivo Coelho under whose six-year tenure DB School (2002) in neighbouring Kuwait diocese expanded.

From 1988, Bangalore province has four centres in Yemen.

Meanwhile, the Varkey Group from Kerala runs 25 schools in the Gulf States catering to over 50,000 students and the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate opened Rajagiri School in Dubai (2007).


Twenty Parishes in 6 Countries:


“Broadly speaking, in most of the Gulf states,” Bishop Hinder explains, “religious freedom is guaranteed within a well-defined framework. Currently, we have a parish in Bahrain, another in Qatar, two in Abu Dhabi and Alain (over 100,000 Catholics), two in Dubai & Jebelai Free Zone (over 100,000 Catholics) and one in Sharjah (65,000 Catholics). This year we have already initiated a registration (census) mandatory for all in Sharjah before the 15th of January 2008. There are two parishes in the emirates of Fujairah and Rasalkhaimah with about 5,000 Catholics each. We also have four in Oman (two in the capital Muscat), plus four communities in Yemen.”

“The pressure on our church premises, particularly in the big centres like Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Sharjah, is enormous and we can barely cater for the worship and pastoral needs of the community. As soon as I get land and necessary permissions – generally a very long procedure – we can think of building new centres,” vows Bishop Hinder.

In Yemen, White Missionary nuns ran first-aid centres till they abandoned work for lack of vocations. Since 1973, MC Sisters administer four institutes for handicapped children and abandoned old people. Four Salesians from Bangalore province serve as chaplains to MC Sisters as well as to local Catholics since 1988 taking the place of White Fathers who left for lack of vocations.

“It is time that the Gulf Church invites religious congregations of men and women to run schools and parishes in collaboration with the local Church,” says parish priest of Mother of Perpetual Help parish Fujairah, Father Mike Cardoz.


One Million Catholics with no Parish:


About half the Catholics in the vicariate, over one million, live in Saudi Arabia. Priests are neither officially admitted, nor public celebration of Mass is allowed, except in the embassies.

Catholics can pray only in their own house, without gatherings of other people, even if they are relatives or friends. Many Christians, while praying together, were discovered, arrested, imprisoned and expelled. There is the ‘mutawa’, a very efficient religious police force, which intervenes immediately on suspicion of any non-Islamic religious meeting.

The Sunnites belonging to the Wahabi group reserve custody of the sacred places of Mecca and Medina and consider all Arabia a holy Islamic place in which no other cult can be admitted. In contrast, there is a mosque in Rome financed by Saudi Arabia in early

It is a laypeople’s church in Saudi Arabia that takes care of catechism for the little ones in private houses. The “parish” of Riyadh is entrusted to a layman who, helped by others, scrupulously looks after what is essential, including the parish registers of the sacraments administered by the priests periodically “in transit”.

C. M. Paul


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