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Bishop Paul Hinder, O.F.M. Cap.

The Church is alive in Arabia: Former apostolic vicar

Gerald Mayer
By Gerald Mayer

13 February 2023

Capuchin Bishop Paul Hinder retired in May 2022 as Apostolic Vicar for Southern Arabia. The mission, first established as the Vicariate of Aden, was divided to create the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia and the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia in 2011. The Swiss-born Capuchin spent 19 years in Arabia and became the first Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia, with its territory covering Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In the following interview with Domradio.de of Germany, he speaks about a thriving Church in the conflict-torn region. He also recalls the kidnapping of Indian Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil and the murder of four Missionaries of Charity nuns while he headed the vicariate.

What is the biggest challenge Christians face in Arabia?

The biggest challenge remains to preserve and practice the faith in an Islamic environment, a world where Christians usually only live temporarily. The conditions are very different depending on the country: in some Arabian countries, it goes well, in others less. But the overall picture is satisfactory.

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Are you saying one can experience a lively faith among the Catholic diaspora?

Definitely. In the United Arab Emirates, we have built nine parishes and nine church buildings. In Yemen, due to the civil war between the government and the Islamist Huthi rebels since 2015, it has been more difficult. However, there are churches in Kuwait, and Bahrain, and a huge church for Catholics in Qatar. In Saudi Arabia, there are no churches, but there are Christian communities.

What characterizes the faith of people in all these countries?

What impressed me is their trust and piety. People come to the services and they like to come. After Covid, our churches are full again. Catholics here believe in a matter-of-fact way. That impressed me from the start.

The people come from different parts of the world to our communities. They speak different languages and have different religious traditions. Yet a feeling of belonging arises. That it works is not always a matter. Of course, there are tensions and conflicts, as there are everywhere in the world where people live together. But on the whole, I find that Catholicism is concretely lived here.

There have been repeated attacks on Christians, particularly on missionaries, in Arabia. Does that belong in the past?

You can never be sure of what others have in mind. I don't feel any danger. But there were these attacks: In 1998, for example, three nuns (of the Missionaries of Charity — two from India and the third from the Philippines — were murdered in Al-Hudaida. And then in 2016 the most infamous case of kidnapping (Salesian) Father Tom Uzhunnalil took place in Aden. In the same attack, four nuns of the Missionaries of Charity were also killed. And not just them, but also 12 employees, most of whom were Muslims, were also shot dead. There is therefore both the martyrdom of the missionaries and the martyrdom of the Muslims solely because of their connection to us, Catholics.

Indian priest Tom Uzhunnalil, rescued after being held hostage in Yemen, speaks to media in New Delhi on September 28, 2017. (Photo: AFP)

You were the local bishop when the Mother Teresa nuns’ convent was raided. What were your initial thoughts at the time of the attack?

It was a shock. I was at the time in a remote place in Switzerland for spiritual exercises. It was difficult to reach me. But when the report came, I was shaken. I couldn't even travel there immediately. Probably that wouldn't have helped much either. Through telephone connections with a sheik in the United Arab Emirates, I was able to arrange the evacuation of the surviving sister. A few days later, I personally met her in Abu Dhabi, the only survivor.

How do you recall that encounter?

The amazing thing was that this sister immediately told me: "I would like to go back as soon as possible." This impressed me a lot. Of course, I couldn't fulfill her wish. She still hasn't returned to Yemen and lives in another country.

Was there not another survivor?

Yes, Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil. His kidnapping was in a certain sense even more painful for me. With the sisters, I had clarity. One of them had survived, and the other four were dead. They became martyrs. But Father Tom? I didn't know if he was still alive or dead. If he was alive, for how long? What would they do with him? This uncertainty was incredibly difficult for me.

Have you made any accusations against yourself?

Of course. In a certain sense, I was responsible after all. I had previously allowed Father Tom to return to Yemen. He had worked there for several years before and was now supposed to lead a study facility for his order in India. Father Tom, therefore, didn't have to come back. Neither his superior nor I pressured him. But when he heard about the suffering of the people in the civil war, he felt a sense of duty and offered to return to the country.

I considered this and agreed. Everything had worked well until that fateful day. We didn't expect it to end this way. There were people who said after the attack: "The bishop was reckless. He should have intervened." I had also given the Mother Teresa sisters the option to withdraw, but they said: "It is part of our mission not to run away in conflict areas." Of course, I could have ordered their withdrawal, but I didn't.

Yes, I prayed and struggled in this situation. The risk was never accurately assessable. Every one of us knew that it was dangerous in Yemen. I felt it myself during visits to Yemen. But I came to the conclusion that the risk was acceptable.

Would you make a different decision today?

Despite everything, I would not make a different decision in a comparable situation today. Of course, I didn't know what would happen back then. And if I knew today, I wouldn't send anyone to certain death. But at that time, the sisters told me: "We can't abandon the people. This is our mission, we stand by it." I respected and admired that.

During his captivity, the kidnappers, Islamist terrorists, released video messages from Father Tom. How did this affect you?

That was the worst for me. In the video, he addressed me directly and asked me to do everything to get him freed. And I did that. But he didn't know. He couldn't have known. I used all the channels available to me. I cannot speak publicly about the details. The important thing is that it worked in the end.

In September 2017, Father Tom was freed. How did you feel when you heard the news?

I was previously informed by relevant people that his release was planned. But of course, I was very excited to see whether the operation would be successful. Until the last moment, we did not know if his release would be successful. There were many uncertainties.

I still remember when a security guard called me and said, "We are now in Muscat. The man has been rescued." And there, on the phone from the capital of Oman, I heard his voice for the first time. A few days later, we saw each other again in Rome. That was very touching and some tears were shed.

(L-R) Cardinal Parolin, Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, and Bishop Hinder assist in the ribbon cutting at the inauguration of St. Paul parish in Mussafah, Abu Dhabi, UAE, June 11, 2015. (Photo: Apostolic Vicariate of Saudi Arabia)

In some countries, attacks on Christians are almost a daily occurrence. What motivates missionaries like the nuns and Father Tom to stand for their faith despite all the dangers far from home?

This can only happen from a firm conviction in following in Jesus' footsteps. I have no better explanation for this. In their footsteps, missionaries take responsibility for other people, whether they be believers, non-believers, or people of different beliefs. Every convinced Christian lives not for himself or herself. We Christians live for the Lord, but also for others. Someone who is fully convinced of this faith will use everything he has for this faith — even to the utmost, even to death.

There are certain situations where Christians, out of responsibility for others, choose not to put themselves in potential danger. That is legitimate and understandable. Jesus had told his disciples, "Do not think about what you should say. The Holy Spirit will give you the right thing to say."

We can trust that when it comes to saying something, behaving properly, or making the right decision. I live as a Christian from my faith. I try to follow Jesus in the concrete situation in which I live. I stay if I have to stay. Or I move on if I am told, "Get up, take your bed, and go.”

Some two decades ago, you took your bed and moved to Arabia. What role does your Capuchin identity play in your mission in Arabia?

It is now exactly 19 years (since I moved to Arabia).  As a Capuchin, I am used to entering new situations, which has helped me. We Capuchins are, as they say, a wandering order. On the other hand, my identity as a Capuchin has also been enriched by the fact that I have become a bishop in a completely new world for me.

In what way?

I'm certainly not an ideal Capuchin, but I live my life with people of all different types and backgrounds. In Italy, the Capuchins are called "Frati del Popolo" (brothers of the people). Here I have learned to be with the people. We are all connected by the fact that we are migrants, "Expats," as they say here. We have moved away from our own country, from the familiarity of our home. For me, it is a mission that was entrusted to me by the Holy Father. Others are here because they need to earn their bread and support their families. We are connected by the fact that we are "Expats."

In addition, the faith of the people here has deepened my faith. I have often told my people: "It's not just that I am your shepherd. You are also my shepherds."

Both as an auxiliary bishop and as an apostolic vicar, what are you most grateful for during your time in Arabia?

I am most grateful for the positive experience of the Church that I was able to have here. For this I have to preface: I am aware of the scandals. I am aware of the crimes in this Church. I don't want to downplay them. They hurt deeply — not just me, but especially those who had to suffer and still suffer.

However, here in Arabia, I experienced the Church in its liveliness and also in its depth. I was allowed to experience a fundamentally cheerful Church here and that has shaped me. I was allowed to build churches — also in the material sense. In 18 years, I was able to construct seven churches. I was able to open Catholic schools in an area where this is not easily expected. This still fills me with joy today.

I visited communities. I think of my recent stay in Saudi Arabia. The beautiful thing was to see that the Church is alive. It's not dead. On the contrary, in difficult situations, it might be even more vital. As one of the few bishops, I had the joy of welcoming Pope Francis twice. Four years ago here in Abu Dhabi and recently in Bahrain. I perceived this as a small highlight of my time [here].

From the outside, you often think: Arabia? There are no Christians there. But that's wrong. The Church exists here too. Christians are also on the move here. When it became apparent that I might become a bishop in Arabia, I had trouble agreeing to it. I then forced myself to say yes and never regretted it. I then told myself, "Now you're here, that's your task." And I was enriched. What remains with me is the hope that I was able to contribute to the liveliness of this Church. Yes, I am grateful for these years. 

The interview was conducted by Gerald Mayer of Domradio.de of Germany. The interview is translated and published here with permission from Domradio.de

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