Church in Gulf States

OXFORD, England (CNS) — The bishop overseeing the church in southern Arabia predicted Catholic life will remain safe in most Gulf states despite threatened new restrictions in Kuwait.

Bishop Paul Hinder, who heads the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, said that although the church lacks resources, its most important priority is to “keep what it has.”

“Things are far from ideal in some countries, but we can live and avoid major problems if we don’t put at risk the relatively good understandings we enjoy,” Bishop Hinder said.

The apostolic vicariate was established by the Vatican in 2011.

The Swiss-born Capuchin Franciscan prelate spoke after legislators in Kuwait acted to curb Christian religious rights by voting to make blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed a capital offense.

Bishop Hinder told Catholic News Service April 26 that religious rights long had been ambiguous in Kuwait, which was liberated from Iraqi occupation by the United States and its allies in the 1991 Gulf War.

However, he added, the position of Christians was unlikely to “change essentially” in neighboring United Arab Emirates and Oman despite disruptions in church life in Yemen because of recent political turmoil.

“We’re in touch with government advisers, so there’s no communication problem,” the 70-year-old bishop said.

Kuwait’s 50-member National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to impose the death penalty for blasphemy in an April 12 legal amendment that still requires final approval by the ruling emir, Sabah Al- Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.

The Gulfnews agency said support for the harsher penalty had increased after the arrest of a local man for allegedly insulting Mohammed on a social networking site. The agency also reported that a Kuwaiti writer had been sentenced to seven years of hard labor in mid-April for saying his country, which still uses the death penalty, “suffers from sectarian struggles and conflicts” in another online commentary.

If enforced, the amendment will bring Kuwait, whose 350,000 mostly expatriate Christians make up 6 percent of the population, into line with Pakistan and neighboring Saudi Arabia.

The amendment was condemned by human rights groups, including Amnesty International, which said it was concerned about a rise in criminal prosecutions for blasphemy, especially against users of social media. The organization said the crackdown could have serious consequences for followers of non-Muslim faiths.

The move is the latest to strengthen Islam in the oil-rich Kuwait since Islamist groupings gained a majority in February parliamentary elections.

In March, the newly formed al-Adala (Justice) Bloc tabled legislation to limit Christian churches and non-Muslim places of worship in Kuwait and proposed constitutional amendments to impose Islamic law, or Shariah.

Catholic leaders abroad criticized support for the move by Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, who said in a March statement that the Prophet Mohammed had decreed “only one religion should exist in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Bishop Hinder said most authorities in neighboring countries appeared to oppose an anti- Christian campaign.

“If this was a real fatwa (religious ruling), I don’t think it will have any immediate effect at government level,” he explained. “But it’s another question whether it could change the climate by affecting less educated people. It’s hard to see into the inner life of the Muslim community here.”

Bishop Camillo Ballin, who heads the neighboring Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which covers Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, declined to be interviewed. He said it was too dangerous for anyone in Kuwait’s Catholic Church to speak to the media.

Bishop Hinder said he understood Bishop Ballin’s caution and agreed the situation had “become critical” in Kuwait.

“We are all being observed, there’s no question of this, and he’s in a particularly delicate situation,” said Bishop Hinder, who was appointed in March 2005. “People should remember we are living here and have to proceed very carefully.“

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