VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Up to half of the Catholics in the Middle East are migrant workers, mostly from the Philippines, who pack the few churches in the Arabian Peninsula each weekend and often turn to the church when their employers exploit or abuse them.
Bishop Paul Hinder, the apostolic vicar for Arabia, is responsible for the pastoral care of Catholics in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. There are more than 2 million Filipinos in the region, and about 80 percent of them are Catholic. There also are tens of thousands of Catholics from India, Sri Lanka and Africa, he told reporters at the Vatican Oct. 19.
Given that situation, he said he thought the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East was “too focused on the classical Oriental churches in the Middle East” and on problems facing the region’s native Christians because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the continuing tensions in Lebanon.
“The church cannot distinguish between first– and second-class Catholics” by downplaying the needs of the millions of Catholic migrant workers in the region, he said.
The situation is urgent, the bishop said, because in too many places the migrant workers, especially the women, “are treated as slaves,” not just in the Arabian Peninsula, but in Lebanon and Israel as well.
“It’s not a particular problem of the Muslim world,” but also happens when the employers are “wealthy Christians who treat these women in a horrible way,” forcing them to work up to 22 hours a day, preventing them from leaving the house and, sometimes, subjecting them to sexual abuse, the bishop said.
The church knows what happens to them only because some of them manage to flee and the first place they turn is the church, he said. Church workers take the exploited to their embassies, which provide a safe house until they can be repatriated, but no psychological help or support is offered to them, the bishop said.
In some countries of the region, women who get pregnant as a result of rape “risk the death penalty” for adultery unless they can get married before the pregnancy is noticed or get to their home country to give birth, he said.
The possible exploitation of migrant workers is not the only point Bishop Hinder wanted the synod to recognize, he said. The immigrant communities of the Middle East are actively Catholic, energize church life and often have more contact with Muslims or Jews than the long-term Catholic residents of the region do, he said.
“But, of course, I’m partial because I’m defending my people,” he said. “It’s my passion to make their reality known.“
He said even other bishops don“t realize there are so many Catholics in the Arabian Peninsula, and most Catholics would be shocked to hear that he has several parishes where more than 10,000 people attend Mass on an average weekend.
That’s partly because most countries in the region do not allow foreigners — including the Catholic Church — to own property, so they can build churches only on land leased to them for that purpose. Usually, it is the country’s leader or a member of the royal family who owns the land, he said.