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FEATURE: Apostles of Christ in the Cradle of Islam

Apostolic Vicar: ‘If after 47 years, I’m still in the Arab world, it’s because I’ve found brothers among Christians and Muslims who accompany me in my life’

Evangelization and interreligious dialogue can go together harmoniously.

This was the affirmation made at the Rimini meeting for Friendship Among Peoples this week, with the testimony of Bishop Camillo Ballin.

Related: Read the Pope’s message to the Meeting, regarding this year’s theme.

The 72-year-old priest, a native of the Diocese of Vicenza, entered the Comboni Order in 1963, and was ordained in 1969.

When he was asked where he would like to be sent as a missionary, he expressed three preferences: “1) Arab countries; 2) Arab countries; 3) Arab countries …”

This was the first of the anecdotes recounted at the Rimini Meeting by the Apostolic Vicar for Northern Arabia, explaining that he perceived his missionary destination as the Lord’s will.

In the course of a one-hour conference on the theme “To Live as Christians,” introduced by the director of Tracce [Footprints], David Perillo, the prelate talked about his enduring pastoral experience in the cradle of Islam: an adventure that began 47 years ago, at the moment of his priestly ordination.

Bishop Ballin, who has covered his present assignment since 2011, is titular of a diocese with just over two million Catholics, seven times the size of Italy and which includes four countries: Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

He has lived almost half a century on the fringes of Christianity, leading a community that has always represented a small minority, made up almost totally of immigrants.

Whether in Bahrain or Kuwait, Islam is the state religion and Shari’a is the main source of law, while in Saudi Arabia no worship, not even in private, is allowed outside of Islam and it is even prohibited to speak of one’s faith, recalled Bishop Ballin.

These are countries that “have based their economy on oil, but the fall in the price has put them in serious difficulty. Politics can do very little if there is no change, a conversion of heart,” affirmed the Apostolic Vicar.

In the Gulf countries, the Catholic Church has very limited freedom of action, without the possibility of influencing the social and political realm. Also in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, where religious pluralism is formally legitimate, it is almost impossible in fact to build churches, parishes or oratories — given the threats and blackmail of fundamentalist Imams. Monasteries are totally absent.

Some greater space is granted to Catholic schools, however, Christian youngsters who have passed their school-leaving examinations are obliged to continue their studies in Europe or America, because access to the universities is only possible for Muslims.

The meagre Christian population in this southern area is, in any case, of a low average age, also because one who has not obtained local citizenship by the age of 60 is obliged by law to return to his country of origin.

So how do Christians live in Arab countries? What sort of witness can they give in such a hostile and ghettoizing context? Bishop Ballin is convinced that their presence is part of God’s plan: “We, Christians, collaborate for a more human society. Our vocation is the whole world; we send disciples of Jesus Christ and it is our mission to help them so that where they go they are ‘light of the world and salt of the earth,’” he said.

In any case, in the Gulf countries the few churches that exist are very frequented and equipped with a Chapel for Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament and of a grotto of Our Lady, for devotion to Our Lady of Arabia.

In Bishop Ballin’s opinion, the Lord has sent Christians to that land “to be messengers of God in the heart of Islam.”

“We don’t export oil but disciples of Jesus,” he added.

The Apostolic Vicar admitted that, in almost half a century, no Muslim has been baptized: the five that requested it were either spies or were looking for a pretext to obtain a European passport. The bishop refused all of them.

Despite this, Bishop Ballin is radiant and has a peaceful heart. “If after 47 years, I’m still in the Arab world, it’s because I’ve found brothers among Christians and Muslims who accompany me in my life. I’ve never had a personal problem with the Muslims; instead, I have found among them sincere and very faithful friends,” he said.

“After 47 years, I can say that what I’ve received from the Arab world is infinitely more than what I’ve given. I am profoundly convinced and happy to be able to say with all sincerity to any Arab or non-Arab brother: you are a good for me,” concluded the prelate, in reference to the theme of this year’s Rimini Meeting.

“Bishop Ballin’s words remind us that the Christian presence is something greater than what we have in mind. It is greater than the words he can’t say and than the works he can’t do,” commented the moderator, David Perillo, at the end of the testimony.

About Luca Marcolivio

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