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Catholics' Easter in the land of the sheikhs

Luca Fiore

Tears of joy ran down the cheeks of many a faithful during the Mass that consecrated the first church in the history of Qatar of the past 14 centuries. It was a Saturday, 15 March, a day before Palm Sunday, and 10,000 people had arrived on foot after walking almost two kilometres in plain desert to the new compound of Our Lady of the Rosary in Mesaimeer, on the outskirts of Doha. "It is a moment I was waiting for a long time," said a Filipino woman. "It's like a dream come true."


Among the people crowding the church for the service celebrated by Card Ivan Dias, prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, are those who lived first hand the catacombs period, when the community could only exist underground, when stones were thrown at the homes for hosting meetings and Masses, when a priest was arrested in 1985.


Swiss-German Mgr Paul Hinder also cannot hold in his emotions. "I began crying from joy," he said. "The most emotional moment was the procession with people from all the nationalities found in the parish. I realised the value of such a rich and varied Christian presence. The only word that might convey the sense of this experience is 'catholic'; what other association or ideology can bring together people who are so different?"


In this country it is a dream that has come true reaching a point of no-return for about 140,000 Catholic immigrants from about 70 different nations.


"Diplomatic relations between Qatar and the Holy See became reality in 2002," said Monsignor Hinder, a Capuchin who has been the Apostolic Vicar since 2005. "But things had already been not as tense for some years. For this we must thank Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani who granted us the land."


What led the king to such openness?


"I think this step is part of a broader political opening," Monsignor Hinder explained. "In my opinion it is clear that the emir, and he is not alone in the Gulf, wants to create a modern country without losing the traditional religious content that defines its society."


Until 2002 polite pressures by the then Apostolic Vicar, Mgr Bernardo Gremoli, or by the Holy See had not been enough. Real movement came as a result of interventions by the ambassadors of the United States and France. Even then they were not the only factor. Emir Hamad al-Thani came to power in 1995 in a coup against his father Kalifa al-Thani. He has continued to uphold Sharia as the law of the land but has made Qatar take giants steps forward in terms of economic and social development. His latest passion is sport events. In 2006 he brought the Asian Games to the country and next June he will submit his country's candidature to host the 2016 Olympic Games. Ultimately all this is good enough for making some small concessions to the country's non-Muslims and gives him an opportunity to develop a reputation of "reformer" in the international community.


"The emir would like to see his country open up to the world," Monsignor Hinder added. "But he knows that it cannot be done without granting immigrants the right to profess their religion."


The powerful Deputy Prime Minister and Energy Minister Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah has even talked about a possible visit by Benedict XVI.


But not everyone looks favourably to the emir's openness towards Christians and some protests have been sparked by his decisions. For instance the British and US Embassies received intelligence about possible attacks against the building on the morning the church was supposed to be consecrated. Concerns are such that the faithful must pass through metal detectors to get to the parvis of Our Lady of the Rosary. "We set aside a room in the new compound for the local police," said Fr Tomasito Veneracion, the parish priest. "They will be present daily and we will thus feel safer."


Christians in the United Arab Emirates



The week following the inauguration of the church, the week of the Pascal Triduum, security was tight throughout the Vicariate, not only in Qatar, but also in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Yemen and across the vast expanse of Saudi Arabia, an area that "is the biggest diocese in the world," said Monsignor Hinder, "home to about two million Catholics." In Dubai St. Mary's Catholic Church is protected by a military van with soldiers who check who comes into the compound which, besides the church, includes a Capuchin convent, a school and more space for the largest Christian community in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a community that in Dubai alone has more than 4,600 children attending catechism.


Security remains a tough task to perform, especially these days with so religious functions. On Easter Sunday in Dubai and in Abu Dhabi (the UAE capital and See of the Vicariate) 19 Masses were held: six in English, two in Arabic, and one in Filipino, Sinhalese, Tamil, Urdu, Malay, Konkani, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish and German. On Holy Thursday 10,000 people took part in services in Abu Dhabi, and on Good Friday at least 30,000 attended Passion liturgies. But there are no alternatives to such large scale celebrations since there is only St Joseph's Church in Abu Dhabi to serve the hundreds of thousands of Catholics living in the emirate.


Worshipers came in group, by car, taxi, rented buses, driving 30 or 40 kilometres for Good Friday or Easter Sunday Mass. Most of them are Indian; many are Filipino. But in the Parish of Abu Dhabi more than a hundred nationalities live cheek by jowl, newcomers who just arrived a few months ago rubbing shoulders with migrants who have been in the place for decades; all seeking fortune but very few finding it. Most of them are just hoping to go home with enough savings for a life of dignity. Alas the cost of living in the Emirates has jumped so much in the last few years that many workers can barely pay for a single room, their hope for return now a pipe dream.


Semi-clandestine places of worship



The celebrations of Holy Thursday just ended in Abu Dhabi and thousands of people slowly make their way out of the church parvis. David, a friend of the parish priest, gives me ride on his four-wheel drive. I ask him: "Where to?" He answered: "To see those who could not afford to come to church today."


It is already dark and the skyscrapers of downtown disappear on the horizon. The car covers about 40 kilometres only to stop in a dark parking lot. We go through a gate and David starts telling me his story.


"I am from Kerala, in India; I am a car mechanic and this is my garage." He also shows a big room next to the garage. "We meet here to pray. The only church in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi is that of St Joseph, but those who cannot go there come here, in this big hall."


The congregation is Indian, from Kerala, people who work hard from the crack of dawn till 6 at night for little money. Afterwards they come here because their tiny rooms, often accommodating seven or eight people, are in buildings that, where it not for satellite TV, look more like concentration camps than hostels.


"These people are lonely; they live in precarious conditions and despair is just around the corner. We make them feel welcome and offer them a way to further develop their faith so that they can find the strength to go on."


But is it not illegal to gather to pray outside the church?


"It is possible to meet in private and this is a private place; very sound-proof," he said with a knowing smile.


Does anyone complain about your presence?


"Yes! Some have complained because they don't want to see Christians meet, but I have permission from my employer, who is a Muslim, from the local police and from the bishop. So they can complain as much as they want, our conscience is clear, and we are going to keep at it."


David's place is one of the four "outreach locations" in the Abu Dhabi parish. Some of the other are in the middle of the desert, patronised mostly by oil rig workers.


The marriage tomb



For most workers arriving in the Arab Emirates family reunification is not a right. In most cases foreign workers come to earn a living for their family back home, but loneliness and the time away from their families often have an unbearable cost, multiplying the number of psychological and moral problems they must cope with.


Salvador and Agnes are a Filipino couple, both in their fifties. He arrived in Abu Dhabi looking for work 23 years ago. They were already married by then but had to wait another 12 years before she could join him. For Salvador that time "was a real nightmare," but "thanks to God we met the Couples for Christ group," a movement that was born in the Philippines for the purpose of helping through experiences of faith couples that are in difficulty as a result of emigration. "In the Philippines," said Agnes, "we say that the Middle East is the tomb of marriages." In Abu Dhabi alone Couples for Christ has a membership of 1,200; 4,000 for all the Emirates.


Relations with local authorities


"We need new space because it is hard to provide everyone with family counselling,' said Monsignor Hinder, "but there are legal obstacles since at least half of all members of local social organisations must be native. For schools this obstacle can be overcome but it is harder when it comes to building a hospital or a medical clinic or setting up a charity. So that even if we got more space from the local emir, we are not certain that we could establish what we need and still maintain our identity and independence."


Despite such obstacles relations with local authorities are very good according to Vicar Hinder. Indeed the authorities are quite willing to meet his needs, "even though it is not certain that if there is openness at the top levels, this necessarily translated into openness among the front-line officials with whom we have solve actual problems." What is more for him "time is a real problem" because he "must spend a lot of time in the emirs' palaces to gain visibility and thus consideration. However, he said: "As you known, I am Swiss, and we have never had a king and I have never been good at playing courtier. . . ."


Embracing the Gospel in the land of the Qur'an


Despite all the great difficulties Catholics must face in the Arab emirates, the flame of their faith shines brighter rather ever.


"Difficult working conditions, dashed hopes, a desire for things to work out, lead these ordinary men and women to rediscover their faith," said Fr Thomas Qadros, parish priest at the Sacred Heart Church in Manama (Bahrain), who is temporarily staying at Dubai's convent. "Some come here asking for something; others want to thank you. Here they understand that they need faith if they want to keep going."


In some cases it is not so much a question of rediscovering faith but rather of finding it, occasionally convert.


John is a 21-year-old Malaysian. He arrived in Abu Dhabi just over a year ago to work as a cook in one of the city's many hotels. During Easter vigil he was baptised. He is not from a Muslim background so he is not at risk. In fact he comes from a Catholic family who for some reason did not have him baptised when he was born.


When he was 12 or 13 he tried to attend catechism in the Philippines but gave up because he had learnt his prayers in English and did not want to learn them again in Filipino. In the meantime his mother had converted to Islam but did not force her son to do the same.


In Abu Dhabi his life has been hard. Working in a kitchen is a stressful occupation, especially when you do not anyone in town. Boredom and sadness became his main companions. Then one day a friend took him to Father Muthu's Mass in Abu Dhabi's St Joseph's Parish Church. Something clicked in him. The next time he went to church all on his own.


"I started feeling more at peace and asked Father Muthu to start me in catechism so that I could be baptised."


Why didn't you choose your mother's religion?


"To be free and then because here I can be forgiven for my sins."


John was not alone in his choice, Wang a young Chinese flight attendant, was baptised as well, the day before Easter.


"Since childhood the Chinese government has taught us that God does not exist and that there was nothing after death," said Wang.


"One day some ten years ago, I came by chance to a church where they were reading a story from the Bible. It was the story of the Prodigal Son and I had never heard anything like it. I later moved to Malaysia where some of my girl friends attended a church. I started going there myself."


Wang then moved to Australia where she decided to join the Anglican Church, but "the problem with Anglicans is that they acknowledged Our Lady but do not pray to her. And for me that's a pity." For the Chinese flight attendant in fact, praying has become something very important. For her "it is a support in one's life. You know that there is someone you can confide in. I, for example, before every takeoff, make the sign of the cross and pray for myself and all the passengers."


Wang is not the only Chinese woman to have discovered faith in recent years in the Arab emirates. Leonina, a Filipino woman very active in the parish, said that she was godmother at the baptism of a woman who left China for a job in the Gulf.


"People often want to be baptised because they want to marry a Catholic. I asked her that question, but she said no. She works at the Duty Free Shop in Abu Dhabi's airport. Her co-workers are all Filipino Catholics and she saw in them something she did not have. And so she asked them what made them so humane in their work. And then she asked to be baptised."


For a European this seems far-fetched, but such things do happen. Right here, in the land of oil and sheikhs, where churches cannot show the cross and belfries are forbidden, the beauty of Christianity has remained unshakeable thanks to people who live their faith armed with courage and discretion.