Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar of southern Arabia, greets community members in the garden of St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral in Abu Dhabi. (photo: Don Duncan)
Born in Switzerland in 1942 to a family of farmers, Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar of southern Arabia, followed a long and varied road to his present post shepherding nearly a million Catholics in Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. He entered the Capuchins in 1962, was ordained a priest in 1967, studied canon law and obtained a doctorate in theology in 1976. After more than a decade in Rome as general councilor for the Capuchins worldwide, he was ordained a bishop in 2004.
From his base in Abu Dhabi, Bishop Hinder sat down with ONE to discuss the progress and challenges of the Catholic community in the Persian Gulf.
ONE: Do you find working in an Arab monarchical system different from your previous work experience in Switzerland and Rome?
Bishop Paul Hinder: I come from Switzerland, a democratic culture with participation of the people, a reliable legal system and so on. In a monarchy, you suddenly have to go to the court, to the palace or to the ruler or the ruler’s representative if you need things done. That is something very strange to my heart — or it was when I started. In the meantime, I had to learn how to work within that system. What I had to learn, and I am still learning, is that living here requires patience — patience in the relationship you cannot establish in five minutes; to be seen to take care of friendships without selling your soul; to show you understand the problems in building the nation. We have to keep in mind that within the last 50 years, they were catapulted from the Bedouin lifestyle to a highly modern and technologically advanced situation, so the locals are also adapting.
ONE: The Gulf States are becoming more tolerant of Christian migrants. The number of churches is increasing. And yet, Christian religious activity is limited to defined spaces. Does this present any problems?
PH: It’s complex. We have limited space and there’s simply too much to do. What we are doing is taking the five loaves and two fish and distributing them, knowing it’s not sufficient but hoping that it will somehow multiply on the ground. The parish priest of St. Mary’s in Dubai was here a few minutes ago. He said that during nine Masses before Christmas, they had 10,000-12,000 Filipinos every evening. How do you deal with so many people? You can’t take them all for confession. On one end, it’s a pastoral opportunity, but you cannot establish individual relationships. This is one of the challenges: to meet the needs, knowing we lack the means, the manpower and the infrastructure to answer them all.
ONE: Some Catholics have mentioned that the lack of space has led to an opportunity for other churches to proselytize and convert. Is this happening?
PH: Sometimes, not having enough space means some people may prefer to go where they can move more easily: the Pentecostal community, the Anglicans, the Orthodox. There is also proselytism. Here on the compound parking area, Pentecostals or the “born-again” Christians distribute leaflets and so on. Never would I have this idea; we accept converts if they come to us freely, but we do not actively propagate Catholicism among the Protestants or the Orthodox.
ONE: Does ministering to a congregation of migrants limit your work?
PH: It’s a delicate issue. Me too, I’m a migrant. I have to renew my residence license here every third year — if not every second. So, of course we are all in the same boat and the possibilities to intervene as a migrant are thin. Where we have direct contact with the rulers, we tell them about our situation, avoiding too much criticism because they don’t like that. It’s not in the culture. But just to say, “look, this is the situation, maybe there is a solution for this” — that can pass.
Then, the main work within the parishes is to help people. In many cases it’s simply to help them get back to their home country because here they are lost; pay a ticket or help them get out of a visa crisis; or to offer security to runaway domestic workers, for example, who have been abused in one way or another. We also help them to get to their respective embassy.
ONE: The government requires that church compounds close from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. for security reasons. That leaves you 17 hours to divide the facilities among various Catholic communities. How do you strike a balance?
PH: You have to distribute the cake in sections. Of course during the day there’s little to do because people have to work, but every evening you have the problem of how to divide the cake. It’s a problem especially in big parishes like St. Mary’s in Dubai and St. Joseph’s in Abu Dhabi.
Besides the availability of priests who can celebrate in the respective rite or language, I have the challenge of fixing the timetable. Of course everyone wants to celebrate on Fridays, being the day of rest. So, on Fridays, we normally have 10 to 12 liturgies from morning to evening in big parishes. You have to think about the catechism, also. There are between 6,000 and 7,000 children in St. Mary’s and close to 4,000 here in Abu Dhabi. We have to teach in shifts, without the children missing Mass. So you simply reach a limit.
Most of the Catholics are Latin, but there are also Syro-Malabar Catholics, the biggest Eastern Catholic community here. Then we have Maronites, Melkites, Syriac Catholics, some Chaldeans, Armenian Catholics, we have some Coptic Catholics, then the Syro-Malankara, not to mention the Eastern Europeans — Ukrainian Greek Catholics and so on. I try to be in dialogue with the different groups, and I can tell you: I don’t think that any other issue has taken so much of my time as this.
ONE: What positive outcomes have come from this situation?
PH: Many of the logistical issues we have are not easy to resolve. But if you ask some Arabic-speaking Christians — here all the Arabic-speaking Christians go to the same liturgy — and many of them have told me that it’s wonderful because for the first time in their lives, they are all together. When they go back to Lebanon or to Syria, they go to their respective churches and are suddenly no longer in the same Eucharist. Here the Maronites and Chaldeans are together, for example, something that never happens back home.