As the apostolic vicar to Arabia, his diocese includes the entire Arabian Peninsula, encompassing six countries: Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam.
Your Excellency, you are in charge of 20 parishes throughout the Gulf, is that right?
Yes, at the present time. I hope there will be more in the future.
Are there plans in the pipeline to build more churches, like the most recent one in Qatar?
Yes, of course I have plans, but it depends on other people. I have plans in the Emirates because as you can see, certain parishes don?t have sufficient space. In Abu Dhabi it?s obvious; it?s the same in St. Mary?s Church in Dubai. We have a big problem in Sharjah [the third-largest emirate].
So, my dream is that we can have at least two or three more places here in the Emirates to improve the service to the faithful.
Lack of space is one problem, but there?s also the problem of distances because more and more people have difficulty to reach the churches, so they have to pay for transport, and this makes it expensive. That is especially true of workers in the labor camps who don?t have the means to come to church anymore.
Now, of course, we are also looking at alternatives ? that means, obtaining permission to get into certain labor camps to celebrate Mass there once a week, and also to guarantee other services like confession or to organize a little better the spiritual lives of those workers inside the camps. But that?s for the future and something I?m discussing with one of the crown princes of the seven Emirates, who seems to be understanding.
But of course, we are in a part of the world where the distance between talking to the heads of state in the Emirates and the implementation of a certain decision is a long one.
What other challenges do you face?
The other big challenge is to improve the ministry ? the quality of the pastoral ministry ? because now we have the problem that is mainly a sacramental service.
Priests take all the celebrations here and there, and so the big question is how to deepen, for example, the religious formation of our people and to establish the necessary structures for it.
It?s not so easy in countries such as here, where we simply don?t have the freedom to organize ourselves. We have always to be careful what can we do, what can?t we do.
Your situation here is very precarious ? one priest told me you could be asked to leave at anytime. How do you deal with that insecurity?
That is part of the Christian existence.
From the bishop down to the laborer in the labor camp, nobody is assured he can remain here for the long term. We simply don?t know, although of course the bishop may be a little more secure than anybody else. That is true, but even for me, I have to be careful how I speak, how I express my opinions.
Some will be thinking that, as the Pope?s representative to the Arab world, your primary task is to win souls to the faith, to convert Muslims to Christianity.
In reality, that?s not the case. As a Christian, I?m convinced we have the truth of Jesus Christ and that he?s the unique savior of the world, even for those who don?t believe in him.
That I would like to share, but now the reality in this part of the world is simply that we?re not allowed to do that, otherwise I would put at risk the few we have.
So I can only apply somehow what St. Francis said in his first rule: that there are two kinds of living among the Saracens, one is to live simply as good Christians and to submit to everybody, and that we do. The second is that if it is God?s will, and they see it is God?s will, then we must proclaim the Word of God, to baptize and so on.
Now regarding the second part, I don?t know if or when it will happen, but at the present time we have simply to apply this thesis, and then at this very different level, we have to profess our faith, even in the presence of Muslims, what we believe.
I think there is a risk; I feel it, because of the situation in which we live. We have the tendency to remain silent, or to be very careful in choosing terms that could be ?too? Christian.
I thought about this in my most recent meeting with Muslims: We have to have more courage, not in the sense that I wish to convert them, but in expressing our faith.
Now regarding conversions, here on the Arabian Peninsula, it?s absolutely clear: It?s illegal. If someone wishes to convert to Christianity, he has to go to another country, and if he comes back, then he will have difficulties integrating himself in the community.
So sometimes there are tragic cases, people who convert but cannot show it openly, and they can?t even go to Mass. Perhaps, sometimes, it?s possible to give them Mass in a private house.
What has your experience here taught you about Islam? Has it changed your impressions of the religion?
It?s not easy to answer this question, but one has to distinguish to whom and with whom you speak.
Personally, I cannot complain. They are treating me well, they are very cordial, generally ? at least the people I meet. Also, other people: the religious adviser of the president, for example, who invites me from time to time to speak at receptions in his house. He introduces me as the representative of the Pope.
What remains the problem, and I mentioned this in Amman, is that I feel as we are in the cage of a zoological garden where you have the freedom in this area which is given to you, but that?s it. I am happy with what we have, but not so happy when looking at the real needs of the Church and the faithful.
In that respect, I would be happy if they could be a little bit more understanding and realize that the Catholic Church is not simply a sect with a few thousand people here in the country. We have to deal with hundreds of thousands.
Edward Pentin filed this story from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.