Bishop Paul Hinder has no doubt: “Whether it is Christians among Muslim or Muslims among Christians, we have to learn to live in harmony with one another,” he says, looking forward to Pope Francis’ next international trip to the United Arab Emirates, Feb. 3-5, 2019, a small country on the Arabian Peninsula, where Catholics are generally small minorities everywhere. It is not the first visit of Francis to an Islamic country, after his travels to Turkey, Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Bangladesh. But the announcement of this trip, as Bishop Hinder confirms, took everyone by surprise.
Bishop Hinder, Franciscan, born in Switzerland, 76, is the former auxiliary bishop (from 2003) and Apostolic Vicar (from 2005) of Arabia, namely Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates. In 2011, the Arabian Vicariate was divided and he became the Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia, including Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. In this territory, Catholics, all foreigners, are about a million. Engaged above all in some sectors (construction, school, services and domestic work), they come from over 100 countries: mainly Philippines, India and other Asian countries.
Speaking to Zenit correspondent Deborah Castellano Lubov (who will travel to United Arab Emirates again on the Papal Flight) in an exclusive interview, Bishop Hinder explains the significance of such a historical event, for the local Catholic communities, the multi-ethnic composition of these, the challenge of living the Christian faith in Islamic countries. “We know that through dialogue much can be achieved, and the Pope is a true ambassador of peace,” he says.
ZENIT: Pope Francis will be the first Pope to travel to the Arabian Peninsula. How did the choice for a destination fall, in particular, on the United Arab Emirates?
Bishop Hinder: It is indeed a historical event! A Pope will travel to the Arabian Peninsula for the first time! Pope Francis makes this visit to Abu Dhabi at the acceptance of an invitation by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, to participate in the Interfaith Meeting about “Human Fraternity”. In addition, the visit is also an answer to the invitation by the Catholic Church in the Emirates. So, it was a series of visits by various government delegations prior to the invitation and a relationship that matured and culminated into this visit.
ZENIT: The announcement of the Pope’s trip took everyone by surprise. As Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia since 2003, would you have ever expected to welcome the Pope to Abu Dhabi someday?
Bishop Hinder: Yes, I have been in the United Arab Emirates and the region for 15 years. Perhaps it seemed impossible when I first arrived here in Abu Dhabi, but over the last couple of years, there have been many changes in the way the Gulf Countries have promoted and projected themselves as globally responsible nations. They have initiated and led many humanitarian campaigns, so I think to create a tolerant society is a natural progression of this vision. So, in the last couple of years after seeing the many visits by State leaders from the GCC to the Holy Father at the Vatican, it was not too distant a reality, and, now that it is happening in a few days, is unbelievable.
ZENIT: What welcome is prepared for Pope Francis? And what are the sentiments of the Islamic majority of the population, looking forward to this event?
Bishop Hinder: Pope Francis will be a guest of the State and as such, the United Arab Emirates’ Government has made every effort to set up and provide all the necessary arrangements for His Holiness’ visit to Abu Dhabi. The provision to celebrate the first ever public Mass is also a gift to the Catholic community in the UAE by the authorities. So far, there has been no negativity around Pope Francis’ visit. We do hope and pray that the Lord will continue his blessings to make this trip a success for us and for the UAE.
ZENIT: The Catholic Church in the United Arab Emirates is composed exclusively of foreigners of different nationalities and backgrounds. What does this mean, for the pastoral life of the communities?
Bishop Hinder: Very true, we are a “migrant Church” and I am a “Bishop of migrants.” One of my 2015 Pastoral Letters was actually titled “If Possible, On Your Part, Live at Peace with Everyone” taken from Romans Chapter 12, Verse 18. I began my letter with these words: “These days we read almost every day about people who are discriminated against, tortured, and even killed: some because they belong to a particular tribe or race; some because they have a different religion.”
So, what I’m trying to say is that although we may be different in our look, ethnicity, culture, and clothing we are all the same and want the same – faith, hope and love. Our beliefs bind us so closely, that even though we come from various backgrounds we are able to live with each other in peace and harmony. Our parishes, in the United Arab Emirates and rest of the GCC countries, thrive on these differences and are very vibrant and alive. Every culture is celebrated with their customs and devotions; for example, there is a nine-day series of Masses celebrated by the Filipino community leading up to Christmas in all the UAE parishes. It is attended by thousands of faithful either before work in the morning or in the late evening. Similarly, the Arabic-speaking Catholic community of different churches and rites, with members from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Palestine and beyond is a testimony that our faith brings us together.
ZENIT: Between Christian and Muslim countries, the idea of “religious freedom” and “freedom of worship” is very different. How would you describe the situation of religious minorities in the United Arab Emirates?
Bishop Hinder: We have been able to worship and pray in our designated areas of worship for the last six decades here in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is a very tolerant society. The first Church in Abu Dhabi was inaugurated in 1965 and in attendance was UAE’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan; the church was constructed on land gifted in 1963 by HH the Late Sheikh Shakbout, the then ruler of Abu Dhabi.
Other than Catholic Churches, our Ecumenical brothers also have churches throughout the Emirates. Other faiths that have places of worship in the United Arab Emirates include Hindus and Sikhs.
True, there are two different understandings between ‘religious freedom’ and ‘freedom of worship’ but if the freedom of worship that we experience in the country allows us to practice our religion without any malice it is commendable. As residents of the nation we have to obey its laws and jurisdictions, which are true for any other nation, too.
ZENIT: The basic theme of the Pope’s trip to the Emirates will be–it is easy to foresee–the Islamic-Christian dialogue. For you, it is an extremely crucial and living theme. First of all, I ask you: to what extent is this dialogue possible, between religions and cultures that are so different?
Bishop Hinder: This is not the first Islamic-Christian dialogue that Pope Francis will visit. In 2017, when he attended a religious conference in Cairo, Egypt he clearly stated: “Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.”
So, from this we know that through dialogue much can be achieved and Pope Francis is a true Ambassador of Peace he has courageously crossed borders, fostering personal encounters with religious leaders, heads of states and humanitarian organizations in the Arab world.
Pope Francis’ has visited several Islamic majority countries, including Turkey, Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Bangladesh. He continues this mission to bring about a dialogue and resolve religious tensions in some countries between Muslims and Christians.
ZENIT: What should be the realistic objective of this dialogue?
Bishop Hinder: In conferences such as these, religious viewpoints are shared and it is not about setting an aim but arriving at a consensus that will shape the action to bring about a change in ‘thought’ and ‘perception’ of the common man. We all want peace, it is the first basic humanitarian criteria, and that we live in peace with our neighbors no matter what their religion, creed or race is. Whether it is Christians among Muslim or Muslims among Christians, we have to learn to live in harmony with one another.
ZENIT: According to various voices of the Christian West, Islam is incompatible with human rights, the freedom of the person, democracy. What is your opinion?
Bishop Hinder: Having lived in an Islamic country for over a decade, I beg to differ; yes, there are several misconceptions and ideologies that are associated with Islam and it is for these reasons that interreligious dialogue is necessary. Some cultural practices may have been construed as Islamic practices and this is what the many conferences and discussions are aiming to set right.
We hope that as we progress into being a more tolerant society, inculcating these values into the youth and future generations the world will be a much more interconnected society.
ZENIT: In many states of the Arabian Peninsula, the conditions of Christians are very difficult. Do you expect the Pope’s journey to produce improvements?
Bishop Hinder: Yes, we are well aware that in the war-torn countries in the region many Christian minorities have suffered atrocities. But is also true that Muslim minorities have also suffered similar fate; this is not a war of religions, but misconstrued ideologies that attack innocent people in the name of religion. Pope Francis has many, times decried such actions and vehemently denounced such atrocities with a clear ‘No’ for hate or crime.
ZENIT: Among the countries that are part of its Apostolic Vicariate there is also Yemen, where a war is being fought that has put a strain on the population. The Pope also mentioned this in the Urbi et Orbi Christmas message and blessing. Can the Pope’s trip be an opportunity to help bring attention on this forgotten war?
Bishop Hinder: Our hope for Yemen is that peace be restored and that the many innocent children and families suffering from famine and disease receive the necessary help they deserve. Again, this is a humanitarian crisis and the world cannot turn a blind eye to it.
Pope Francis has always courageously made his viewpoint known and he will surely do the same should the opportunity arise. A clear example of this is when he visited Bangladesh. Pope Francis boldly told a group of 16 refugees at an interfaith meeting in the capital Dhaka: “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”
So, this gives us hope that his visit may not bear immediate fruit but sets in motion many positive movements that will spark a light on forgotten humanitarian crises.