ABU DHABI – When Irish people think of a diocese, they likely imagine a county-sized region with townland parishes within.
Not so for Bishop Paul Hinder. He is the Pope’s representative in the heartland of Islam, in charge of a diocese encompassing six Arab countries – Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
I caught up with him at St Josephs Cathedral in the oil-wealthy city of Abu Dhabi, part of the Emirates. That same day, neighbouring Dubai launched the world’s tallest building, the 800 meter high Burj Khalifa, with the building effectively paid-for by Abu Dhabi, which is footing Dubai’s bills after spectacular property bust last year.
Bishop Hinder is more concerned about the estimated 2 million Catholics across his vast diocese. The majority are Filipino migrant workers, with an estimated 1 million or more in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and site of its holiest places. Here open Christian worship is not permitted, and priests cannot serve.
Workers also come from countries such as Ethiopia and India, and many suffer at the hands of unscrupulous agents and employers. Often they come to the region on the promise of a good job and good conditions, but on arrival their passport is taken by their new employer, or the agent who brought them from home, and they are forced to work long, almost incessant hours, with no recourse to due process.
The women usually work as domestic servants, and stories of beatings and sexual abuse are rife. Some women are trafficked into prostitution, Men often work on the mammoth construction projects, such as the Burj Khalifa, toiling in the hot desert sun for a pittance. Some say their conditions are little more than slavery.
It is a stark contrast to the luxury enjoyed by western expats living tax-free in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
The Church does what it can to help, but in Saudi Arabia, where the bulk of the flock are, Church activity is proscribed. In Abu Dhabi, there is more freedom, and Bishop Hinder acknowledges that the Church was welcomed by then-ruler Sheikh Sayed, when the regional hq was moved from Yemen in the 1970s.
Still, however, the church must keep a low profile, and it is absolutely forbidden by law for Bishop Hinder or any of the 60 priests in the vast diocese to proselytise. As if to underline the heirarchy, the evening call-to-prayer issued aloud from the green-lit sandstone mosque next door, causing a pause in our conversation.
St Joseph’s Cathedral sits in the shadow of the minarets, and looks more like a community hall, with no discernable physical features such as spires or crosses outside or on the building. Still, it caters for 13 language groups, and on Christmas Day over 20 Masses were celebrated.
All in all, the diocese is made up of 20 parishes across the six countries, with seven churches in the UAE, 4 in Oman, 1 in Qatar and 1 in Bahrain. Bishop Hinder says that resources are stretched, and that sacramental work takes up most of the time, leaving less opportunity than elsewhere to develop social organisations such as Caritas, which could help some of the struggling Catholic migrant workers, or to do pastoral work with parishioners.
But it is Saudi Arabia where the biggest challenges lie ahead. Masses cannot be held and confession cannot take place. And though conditions improved after the Saudi king’s visit to Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, Bishop Hinder says that he does not expect any churches to be built there anytime soon.Show