The first catholic church was recently dedicated in the Muslim Gulf State of Qatar. Among those taking part in the dedication was Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar for Arabia. He told Ina Rottscheid about the new reality of religious freedom in the Gulf States
The church will provide a place of prayer and a community centre for the 60,000 mainly foreign catholics in the country. Are there enough catholics in Qatar for a new church like this?
Paul Hinder: We don’t know exactly how many catholics there are. We’re assuming that there are currently around 100,000 in the whole country. Of course, they are all immigrants from the Philippines, India and other countries. But there’s no danger that the church won’t be needed, since we already have so many people attending the services which we’ve been holding in other places that I think we’ll fill the big church several times a week.
In Qatar Islam is the state religion. How hard was it to get the plans for this church approved?
Hinder: It was of course a process of asking questions, making requests and engaging in negotiations, which lasted years. I think the first attempt was made over ten years ago. That of course has to do with the general situation in the country. As you say, it is a country influenced by Islam – and by a very strict form of Islam, similar to what one finds in Saudi Arabia – and that’s one of the reasons why it took so long.
In the end, it has something to do with the fact that the current Emir of Qatar is trying to open up his country. He’s not just trying, he’s succeeded in several respects, and we have profited from this development. And it’s not just we catholics who have profited, but the other churches as well. And I‘m sure he will carry this process further.
Was it then finally straightforward, or were there problems and restrictions on the project?
Hinder: Yes, we had the usual restrictions that one has in such a country. That doesn’t just apply in Qatar, it also applies in the Emirates and in Oman. One is not allowed to have any explicitly Christian symbols visible: no tower, no cross, no statues. Such things can only be inside the grounds and may not be visible from outside – from the street, for example.
I can live with such restrictions; I don’t have any problems, so long as we are then free within the building. And also that we have freedom to conduct our services as we want.
Bishop Hinder, you are the head of the largest diocese in terms of area. You’re in charge of Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. These countries are well-known for their restrictive policy on religious freedom, especially in the case of Saudi Arabia. How difficult does that make your work?
Hinder: Yes, of course there are restrictions, because mobility is restricted, especially for the bishop. But above all, the freedom to hold gatherings is only granted to a limited extent - in other words, essentially it’s restricted to those premises which are made available to us to carry out pastoral work. Otherwise one usually needs a special permit, or one has to take risks.
When you live in such a country, as I do now, then you get used to such restrictions and you try to do what you can. Of course I sometimes wish for a greater openness and I hope that the process will move in that direction, not just for us, but also for other religions.
Bearing in mind that the Emir of Qatar has contributed to the church and has supported you – is this project a first signal for an opening up of these countries towards more religious freedom?
Hinder: Yes, we shouldn't forget that in all the other countries – except for Saudi Arabia – such communities already exist officially. We've had a church in Bahrain since 1938. In the United Arab Emirates we have seven parishes, in Oman four.
What is new is that Qatar has brought something like this to fruition as a separate Emirate. But in fact Qatar is simply following on with something the other countries have already been doing.
The interview was conducted by Ina Rottscheidt.
© Deutsche Welle 2008
Bishop Paul Hinder, who was born in Switzerland, is the apostolic vicar for Arabia. He heads the largest diocese in the world, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen.
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton