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Religion and Society

Being a Thousand amongst Twenty Million

The tiny Christian community of the Yemen, which reappeared in the middle of the nineteenth century more than a thousand years after its disappearance, has very few opportunities to express itselfbecause of the limitations imposed on religious freedom. The low profile imposed by the general climate of society.

The Queen of Sheba, having heard of Solomon's fame, came to test him with subtle questions. She arrived in Jerusalem with a very numerous retinue, and with camels bearing spices, a large amount of gold, and precious stones. She came to Solomon and questioned him on every subject in which she was interested" [1 Kings 10:1-2]. This text in the Bible reminds us that in the eighth century BC commercial and cultural contacts already existed between today's Yemen and Solomon's kingdom. During subsequent centuries, many Jews migrated to Yemen. An important Jewish population in southern Arabia is known at the latest as existing from the second century after Christ onwards. In the cities of Zafar and Sana'a we find very early not only Jewish but also Christian communities. In the sixth century, the cathedral of Sana'a, modelled on the church of the Holy Sepulchre, was known as a jewel, and was famous beyond the borders of the kingdom. In the Koran sure 105 "The Elephant" mentions the failed attack of Abraha, the Christian king in Yemen, against Mecca in order to destroy the Kaaba, and to direct the pilgrims to the monumental church in Sana'a. This happened about 570. Later, after Islam came to Yemen around 630, Christianity gradually disappeared for more than 1,000 years, less because of the proselytizing of Islam than as a result of the divisions among the Christians and of the lack of concentrated communities.


The presence of the Catholic Church in Yemen in modern times goes back to the year 1841 when the Mission in Aden was opened and the Servants of Mary arrived. Aden had been colonised by Britain in 1839 as an important coaling station on the route to India, and its importance for shipping gave it a cosmopolitan population that was English, Irish, Portuguese, Somali, Ethiopian and Jewish. Health problems due to the horrible climate forced the Servants of Mary to give up the mission, which was then connected to the Galla mission in Ethiopia under the leadership of Monsignor Guglielmo Massaia, who later became a Cardinal. From that time on, benefiting from the religious freedom of the colony, we find the Capuchins on the peninsula, who continued the pastoral work among the Catholics, whose numbers were already around 1,000 in the strategically and economically important city of Aden. The Vicariate Apostolic of Arabia, with its seat in Aden, was formally erected on 4 May 1888.


The priests (Capuchins) and Sisters (the community founded by St. Daniel Comboni and now known as the Comboni Missionary Sisters, at present working in the Vicariate in Fujairah and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates) built up an intense activity in the parishes and in four schools. Independence from Britain came in 1967, when the People's Republic of Southern Yemen was founded. Later, in 1979, under strong Soviet influence, the country's name was changed and became the only Marxist state in the Arab world. This Communist regime, with its necessary intolerance of religion, almost led to the extinction of the Church in Yemen. Hopes that the missionaries, who had contributed so much to education, would be respected were shattered in 1973 when the schools were nationalised and priests were imprisoned. Although they were later released, the Church's property was confiscated and the Sisters expelled, together with the Capuchins. Only a few Christians and one priest remained under conditions which were terrifying, as thousands of Europeans and Indians left the country. The Catholic population fell to 120, with only two or three baptisms a year instead of the previous hundred or so. This was a real persecution.


Finally, the seat of the Vicariate was moved to Abu Dhabi in the seventies not only because of the situation in Yemen, but also because of the demographic shift of the Catholic presence to the Gulf side. Ten thousands and finally hundreds of thousands of workers, among them many Christians, came to the Gulf countries. The Ruler of Abu Dhabi had given land in 1962 for the construction of a church, and the changing situation led, at the invitation of the new ruler, H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyyan, to Abu Dhabi becoming the residence of the Vicar Apostolic.



Special Protection


Yemen, where the presence of the Church had began, became numerically almost insignificant, although in the bigger cities like Sana'a, Aden, Taïz and Hodeidah a few Catholics could be found. In North Yemen, the White Fathers took care for sixteen years (1973-1989) of the few Christians there. In communist South Yemen only one Capuchin finally was left in Aden. However, in spite of the complicated political situation and the long wars, life continued. In 1973 the Missionary Sisters of Charity, known as the Sisters of Mother Theresa, who had been called to the country by the President of North Yemen, established themselves in Hodeidah. In 1976 they opened a house in Sana'a and in Taiz in 1977; finally, after the unification of South and North Yemen, they also opened a house in Aden. Other Congregations of Sisters have worked in the country, but nowadays there are only around twenty-five Sisters of Charity left. In the four cities of Sana'a, Aden, Hodeidah, and Taiz they run homes for the physically and mentally handicapped, and provide a marvellous witness of Christian love at the heart of a Muslim society. On 27 July 1998 at 8.30 in the morning, three Sisters of Charity, Sr. M. Zelia, Sr. M. Aletta (both Indians), and Sr. M. Michael (Filipina), were shot dead by a local fanatic on their way from their convent to the old people's home they ran. The President of Yemen, deeply shocked by this criminal act, immediately ordered special protection for the Sisters, an arrangement that still continues. The tombs of these three martyrs are in the Christian cemetery of Ma'allah in Aden.


Only a few Catholics live among the more than 20 million inhabitants of Yemen. Almost all of them are foreigners. Most of the Catholic citizens left the country after the installation of the communist regime in Aden. Thus the formerly large community of Christians in Aden became a tiny group. Nowadays we find the biggest congregation of Christians in the capital, Sana'a, where the number of Catholics is approximately 800. The other three communities in Aden, Taïz and Hodeidah have around 100 members each. Quite a few scattered Christians live and work outside these cities and are not able to come together to worship, and it is almost impossible for the priests to reach them. It is not possible to arrive at precise numbers as regards other Christians in the peninsula.


Most of the Catholics are of Indian and Filipino origin. In 1988 the Vicar Apostolic of Arabia made an agreement with the Salesian province of Bangalore (India) to assure the regular pastoral care and spiritual direction of the four parishes and the four convents of the Sisters of Charity. This was possible because the Ministry of Health in Yemen wanted the Sisters, and Mother Theresa stipulated that they could only work in the country if they were permitted a "male spiritual guide". Since the government was anxious to have the Sisters, this condition was granted, and this obviously enabled us to bring a priest for each of their houses. So it is thanks to the Sisters that the Catholics in the vicinity can be served. At present there are four Salesian priests in the country, living simply in a rather difficult environment. Thanks to the former mission in Aden during British rule, there are three churches in the town districts of Crater, Ma'allah and Tawahi, or Steamer Point. The Holy Family church in Crater, the oldest of the three, was consecrated 150 years ago, and has been recently restored after being desecrated under the Communists, like the church in Ma'allah.


Unfortunately, there are no proper places of worship for the other parishes of Sana'a, Hodeidah and Taïz, where the Catholic communities are hosted in rented private houses. While the Sunday Masses are celebrated in the "chapel" of rented houses, i.e. in the biggest room, the weekly Masses are held in the small house-chapel of the respective convents of the Sisters of Charity.



A Poor Church


Yemen has had diplomatic relations with the Holy See since 1998. The Apostolic Nuncio in Kuwait is at the same time as the Nuncio accredited to Yemen, Bahrain and Qatar. In August 2005, Archbishop Mounged El Hachem followed the first Apostolic Nuncio in the region, Archbishop Giuseppe De Andrea. There are negotiations with the government in order to provide the Catholic Church in Yemen with a proper legal status that would allow the establishment of a necessary infrastructure for the faithful. Relations with the government are good. The Apostolic Nuncio in his official functions, and the Vicar Apostolic during his yearly pastoral visits, are regularly in contact with the representatives of the government.


The activities of the Church in Yemen are very restricted because of the small number of Christians and because of the very limited religious freedom in the country. Although most of the authorities show a remarkable openness, the general religious climate of the society imposes a necessary low profile. At present there are efforts to obtain the necessary permission for modest new structures in view of social activities, e.g. a small clinic or dispensary for the poor in Aden. The government seems to welcome private schools again, but so far no serious effort has been made to give back any of the nationalised schools in Aden or to give permission for a new one. Anyway, the procedures for such projects are lengthy and time-consuming.


The Church in Yemen is materially very poor and needs constant support from the Apostolic Vicariate. The Christians in the other part of the Vicariate are well aware of the needs of the communities in Yemen and contribute generously to their brothers and sisters as well as to the poor, especially those in the four homes run by the Sisters of Charity.


Here the Church is still passing through a difficult period. She needs not only the material help of their brothers and sisters elsewhere, but, even more, spiritual support. The first step is without any doubt to be aware that there are Christians in that country, and not to forget them.