Sonu Augustine sits with his wife Shiby and daughters Anagha, 14, and Nidhika, 7, at their home in Doha, Qatar. (photo: Don Duncan)
Sonu Augustine plays with his daughter Nidhika in the yard of their home. (photo: Don Duncan)
Sonu Augustine celebrates the Divine Liturgy at the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Church in Doha. (photo: Don Duncan)
Sonu Augustine, 46, arrived in Qatar from Kerala, India, 20 years ago. There he married and built a life, and now rears two children. A legal advisor in a local Qatari company, he is one of an estimated 400,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics in the Persian Gulf region. As secretary of the Syro-Malabar Cultural Association in Qatar, he is at the forefront of a coterie of lay Syro-Malabars pushing for better access to services and pastoral care in their own Catholic tradition within the Gulf region’s Latin-dominated Catholic Church. Mr. Augustine recently met with ONE magazine’s Don Duncan to discuss the challenges of faith and culture in the Persian Gulf region.
ONE: Tell us about your family, and how it shaped your faith and your life.
Sonu Augustine: I belong to a traditional Catholic family with an ardent vigor for faith. Of my father’s five brothers and four sisters, three became priests and one became a religious sister. Prayer was present in my family, so it was quite natural for me to inherit this faith — my main source of strength in my day-to-day life.
ONE: You grew up in Kerala among many Indian Catholics. Did you experience other religions in your youth?
SA: In my village, there were Christians and Hindus in equal numbers. The Hindu temple was so close to my house, we could hear the prayers. Many of my close friends were Hindus. It was a very lovely atmosphere: peaceful coexistence.
ONE: Did the multiplicity of faiths ever confuse you in your own faith?
SA: When I reached college, I began to read texts from other religions — especially from Hinduism. The way Hinduism perceives God attracted me; in Hinduism there is only one all-encompassing God, whereas in Christianity, God is manifested as a person, in Jesus. This created a friction in me and the further reading led me to atheism for a short time. But the faith I practiced at the very beginning of my life came to my rescue during a hard time, in which I found myself answerless, helpless.
It can be confusing during our formative years when we begin to question our beliefs and others’ beliefs and wonder which one is correct. But once we mature, we realize that coexistence with other religions is of great benefit for us, even for understanding our own faith.
ONE: Does this experience make you wary for the faith of your two children?
SA: As I bring up my two girls, I am very anxious and very cautious that such a phase of moving away from faith shall not happen in their lives. Faith is real. Faith is required. Faith is inseparable from any human being. So, my wife and I, we cautiously lead our children in the path of faith. Whenever we have an example of God’s presence, we say, “praise the Lord for this,” so that the Lord is there with us in every moment. We go to church and we regularly receive the sacraments. Every day we have prayer in this house.
ONE: Does your existence far from the core of the Syro-Malabar Church make it harder for you to transfer your traditions to your children?
SA: We have to work assiduously to make sure that the children are growing up in our faith. Growing up in India means that there is a communal family structure. Grandparents live with the family, brothers and sisters are always nearby, and there are Christian neighbors and a parish with activities of all types. In Qatar, however, it is much different. Even if I go regularly to church here, Syro-Malabar Catholics do not have adequate access to services in our tradition in the Gulf. The children miss out.
ONE: So you have attended the Latin-rite Mass for want of the Divine Liturgy in the Syro-Malabar’s tradition?
SA: For a starving man, whatever food he gets is good food. When he has options, he will opt for the best food. It was a situation like that when I first got here.
ONE: What have you done to promote your own Catholic tradition in your community?
SA: We have regular activities in the church — social activities, cultural programs, charity drives. Children are witnessing how parents are contributing toward a better society by helping people and by creating new things. These are important mental, moral and social lessons. This helps compensate for the shortfall in access to services and pastoral care.
ONE: Thanks in large part to lay advocacy, the first and only Syro-Malabar Catholic church in the region was erected in 2009. How did you achieve that?
SA: In 1999, we started the Syro-Malabar Cultural Association. We approached the Indian Embassy for visas for our priest, and then priests began to make regular visits. This is the first time I became actively involved in the activities of the church, writing letters to various members of the Catholic hierarchy — from Pope John Paul II to the major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, to the local bishops here in the Gulf. I would draft at least one such letter per month.
ONE: What’s the next challenge for your community?
SA: A pressing challenge is the formation of a Syro-Malabar exarchate [a jurisdiction similar to an apostolic vicariate] here. We feel the Holy See will one day declare an exarchate and we feel that Qatar is the ideal place for its seat.
ONE: Would you say your experience in Qatar has brought you closer to your faith and your church?
SA: Back in India, I was never part of a minority. It never occurred to me that I would have to work to preserve my heritage until coming to Qatar. In the beginning, I wondered: “What is the difference between all these Catholic churches? Their churches look the same. The liturgies are practically the same. Jesus is one. So, why the differences?” But I soon recognized that these different traditions each have value.
Becoming active in church life here has taught me about the relationship one should have with God, and through this I continue to grow. So in a way, my life in Qatar helped me to become a more spiritual and faith-filled man.
A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.