Fr Raul Ramos is a 55-year-old Capuchin friar who comes from the Philippines; since 2007 he has been parish priest at St Peter and Paul’s church in Ruwi, a district of Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman. From the roof of his rectory, among satellite aerials and air-conditioners, he points to the church’s white dome. «Beautiful, isn’t it? It looks like the dome of a mosque ». He laughs. It is sunset, and the sky above Muscat is tinged with a delicate pink which seems to smooth down even the grim crown of craggy mountains which surround the city overlooking the Indian Ocean.
From the roof are also visible the churches of the other Christian denominations, the basket-ball court, and a little cemetery with the tombstone of the British soldiers, Catholic or otherwise, who in the nineteenth century lost their lives in Oman. St Peter and Paul’s in Ruwi is one of this Country’s four [Catholic] churches. Another one, still around Muscat, is the Holy Spirit church in Ghala; the third, St Anthony’s, is further North, in Sohar; the fourth is the parish church of St Francis Xavier, in Salalah, on the south side. All the land where churches are built was donated by Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said and the parishes belong to the Arab Peninsula Vicariate. The faithful of these churches are all foreigners who have come for work: in fact, one third of Oman’s population is made up of business immigrants.
Fr Raul, how many souls are there in your parish, and where do they come from?
According to a very approximate estimate, 20,000; but frankly I believe they must be 23-24,000. We have 1,500 between children and young people in the catechism class. The greatest majority of the faithful come from India and from the Philippines but there are also many Pakistani, Nepalese, Bangladeshi and Sri-Lankans, as well as Arabic-speaking Christians coming from Lebanon and surroundings. Then we also have some Africans and Europeans.
In what language is the liturgy?
The main language is English; but once every two weeks or once a month we also have them in Malayalam (Kerala), Konkani (Goa), Filipino and Urdu.
One hears that people who come to the Gulf Countries to work re-discover their [Christian] faith. Is this true also in Muscat ?
Absolutely. People arrive here and find a completely different situation: hard work, distance from home and loneliness. They come to Oman to work and cannot cultivate their faith as they did back home. Hence their need for a deeper meaning, for a fulfilment which they had never perceived so sharply. So their involvement with the Christian community becomes greater. The discipline, silence and commitment they demonstrate during the services are really impressive. Many of them work in isolated areas and must travel several kilometres to get to church: the nearest one is 25km away, the next 250km and the next after that 1200km. So many of them set off on a real journey to come to mass but they do it because to them it is a bit like going back home.
How do they reach the parish from the furthest areas ?
By car, if they have one, or by taxi. In many cases the firms they work for arrange for coaches to take them to the Friday holiday mass.
A minor odyssey....
Yes, distance is a real problem. The people who work in the interior, in the desert areas where the oil wells are, are really difficult to reach. To visit them is a problem for us too, also because we do not have permission to gather to pray outside some appointed places, that is, our four churches.
What are the other difficulties experienced by your parishioners?
First of all, the people who come here do so because, usually, they have problems back home. A great number of them rely on agencies which promise them employment abroad and a high salary. Many accept because they are extremely poor but they often do not find what had been promised them. Some manage to get here legally, others arrive illegally. The illegal ones experience fear and uncertainty, the problems of the clandestine. Another great difficulty is loneliness. They come to a foreign country and do nothing but work: home-work, work-home, work-home-church. Nothing else. Loneliness and sadness. You may be working here 20 years and be able to go home every other year for one month only.
How do these immigrants relate to the locals?
The big problem is the language. Arabic is a very beautiful tongue but a difficult one to learn. The lingua franca is English, used by the immigrants for communicating quickly with the locals, especially in the public offices; so contacts remain superficial, it is difficult to establish deeper relationships.
Are there people who convert to Catholicism?
Some of the non-Muslims do convert. But we ask these people to seek baptism in their own countries. Usually this happens during the holidays. They go back home to India or the Philippines: there they are baptized, then come back here and start taking part in the life of the community. We do this out of caution and respect towards the freedom of worship conceded to us by our Muslim brothers.
How do they happen to convert?
The Indian or Filipino Christians happen to work side by side with co-citizens who belong to other religions. While at work, people happen to talk, and many Christians witness their faith on a daily and practical basis: I ask: «What brings you here? ». They answer: «What convinced me was to see how they live, how they work, how they practise their faith».
Which case struck you most?
I am very struck when I discover that some public figures of other religions believe in Jesus. They believe in the Christian faith. They are Muslims, Hindu. I am very surprised. Sometimes they come and ask. But we cannot do much. There are also some locals who come to ask me to pray for them.
Why do you think this is?
Because they are struck to see how our people live.