From Monday to Saturday, the Conference of Latin Bishops of Arab Regions (CELRA) will fulfill its every-five-year “ad limina” visit to Rome.
These bishops already met in October, to study the social, political and religious situation of the Arab countries. On that occasion they reported that the Christian communities must often worship “in catacomb conditions.” In some countries, Christian practice can even endanger the life of the faithful. The meeting served to confirm the urgency of the interreligious dialogue.
The situation of Catholics in Arab countries varies. In Saudi Arabia (880,000 Catholics, mostly Filipinos) Christians are not allowed to meet for prayer even in private homes, or to possess a Bible. Religious proselytism is punished with the death penalty.
In the Vicariate Apostolic of Arabia, the most open country is Bahrain with 35,000 Catholics, served by three priests and seven Comboni nuns who run a school for 1,600 pupils. Recently, the Catholic community built a church to seat 1,300.
In United Arab Emirates, Mass may only be celebrated in homes. In Oman, 50,000 Catholics are organized in groups for prayers and the Liturgy of the Word. Seven priests try to visit each group at least once a month. In Qatar there are 40,000 Catholics. With no church building as yet, they meet for prayer at the International American school or other places.
In Yemen there are about 3,000 Catholics, 33 priests and 71 nuns. Moreover, there are 12 Catholic schools much appreciated for the high level of education.
In Kuwait there are about 100,000 Catholics and 50,000 other Christians, Protestants and Orthodox. There are two churches: Holy Family in the Desert Cathedral and Our Lady of Arabia Church.
In Somalia the situation is difficult, because of the war that broke out in 1990. Monsignor Giorgio Bertin, apostolic administrator of Mogadishu, was forced to move to Nairobi, Kenya. The war destroyed Church structures and forced missionary personnel to leave. Today there are only about 40 Somali Catholics in Mogadishu living a catacomb faith with only sporadic contact with Monsignor Bertin.
In Egypt there are 6 million Christians (93% Copt Orthodox). However, baptismal registers show about 10 million, including “Crypt-Christian” or Christians who because of social pressure declare themselves Muslims. Catholics number about 200,000.
In the Holy Land, there are three patriarchs in Jerusalem: Latin, Greek and Armenian. Latin-rite Catholics number about 70,000: 30,000 in Jordan, 15,000 to 20,000 in Israel, and the same number in the West Bank territories, all under the authority of the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. The Latin-rite community is greatly appreciated for its work in the fields of social assistance and education.