In this period of Advent in preparation for Christmas, “let us renew the call for the journey of unity” in a context in which the faithful of various nationalities and rites live, said Mgr Camillo Ballin, apostolic vicar of Northern Arabia (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain).
With respect to the upcoming papal visit to the United Arab Emirates, the first of a Roman pontiff in a Gulf nation, the vicar stressed that the event will be a “source of encouragement” for the region’s Catholics, although some doubts remain.
“Every community, every group coming from various source countries is getting ready with prayers, songs, and spiritual retreat-like gatherings,” Mgr Ballin said.
“We have brought in priests from outside the region so that the faithful can confess [in their own language] and we have organised some educational activities related to the holidays,” he said.
Of course, “the ambiance is nowhere like Christmas in Italy, or Europe, but the faithful are waiting eagerly for the celebrations”.
In Kuwait, as in the region’s other Muslim majority countries, no major changes have occurred for the community. As a local saying goes, here “you walk at the speed of the camel”. This means “It’s a slow walk, slow progress that does not bring great change in terms of social or confessional relations.”
For decades, as foreign workers, “most Christians have reproduced here the life and traditions they brought from their countries of origin. As a Church, we try as much as possible to make them happy.”
According to 2014 figures, the region’s Catholics (mostly economic migrants) number almost 2.5 million out of a population of 36 million. They are served by about 60 priests, two deacons, in ten parishes, plus 40 men religious and 18 nuns.
Except for Saudi Arabia, where only Islam is allowed, religious freedom exists to a substantial extent in the other countries and religious practice faces no particular restrictions.
For Mgr Ballin, “The main problem is the location for celebrations. Usually, we have only one church available for all groups and languages. For example, here in Kuwait there are five different rites. And for the Latin rite alone, we have 13 languages bit a single parish for Mass and services.”
Each rites “tries to maintain its traditions, but we insist on the importance of communion; otherwise we are but many different Churches without any catholicity“, which is why “I ask the faithful to be patient and work on a journey of communion.”
“At the same time, it is crucial to meet practical needs, by building a cathedral in Bahrain. The site is only 24 km from the Saudi border, making it an essential place of prayer for those who live and work in the kingdom.”
With respect to the pope’s Gulf visit next February, the vicar of Arabia calls it an “encouraging” event that will push Christians to “live their faith with greater strength”.
However, sources in the vicariate spoke to AsiaNews about some “critical issues” related to the visit.
In the past, other countries in the region, such as Bahrain, had invited the pontiff. For this reason, “a visit to the four countries of the region that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, however brief, would have been more appropriate,” especially in light of the row between Riyadh and Doha and the war in Yemen.
“What is more, the path to dialogue seems to privilege Sunni Islam, including Egypt, at the expense of other countries and Shia Islam.”
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