In the early Church, Masses were sometimes celebrated in the catacombs to hide from the authorities. In post-Reformation England, priests would disappear into Catholic homes and dispense the sacraments in secret.
On a recent trip to the Persian Gulf, I met with a priest who also ministers secretly — in modern day Saudi Arabia. For his own security and that of his flock, we cannot name him, give his precise location or his nationality. Yet, he was happy to reveal an interesting insight into his ministry in Saudi Arabia, a country in which no churches are allowed. In hidden ways, he is one of a handful of clergymen who have been allowed to minister to Christian immigrant workers in the country for the past 50 years. It may be one of the richest countries in the world, but his life is not easy.
“You have to be careful,” he says. “We can carry out our ministry as long as it’s undercover. As long as we stay quiet and don’t make a big deal about anything, they’ll leave us alone. Because they know we’re there.”
That must be quite unnerving, since the “they” in this case are Wahhabi extremists who consider priests their enemies.
“We would be jailed and executed if they had their way,” the priest says. “That’s always the threat. If we ever got caught by the matawas [religious police], there’s not much they can do because our sponsors would most likely rush us out of there. Of course, then we’d be done, and we’d never come back again.”
There have been several instances when priests in Saudi Arabia had been arrested, he recalls, though it is now rare. The worst case was when a priest spent 24 days in jail.
“We have to be very careful about printed materials,” he explains, adding that even bulletins and hymnals are out of the question. “We use projectors to project the hymns and readings so people can see them.”
The priest ministers to immigrant workers in the country. He told me there are 15,000 Catholics in his area, mostly Filipinos — 1.2 million Filipinos work in Saudi Arabia, an immigrant group second only to Indians. These two groups make up 80% of his flock.
“The way I see it,” says the priest, “I have as little to do with Saudis as possible. That sounds bad, but the problem is when you start mixing with Saudis, then you have to explain who you are. I simply can’t explain who I am and why I’m there. I know a few Saudis and a few Saudis know me, but they know what I do, so I don’t have to worry about what I say or do. But I tend not to mix with too many Saudis because there’s no good way to explain this — if they bring up the subject and they know what you’re doing, then I wouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.”
He says Christians help keep the country peaceful by being unthreatening. “You preach by the way you live, that’s our great mission and duty here,” he says.
‘We’re After the Terrorists’
This priest remembers when one internal security officer came to one of his services. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, what’s happened?’ But one of our parishioners brought him. He knew who we were and where our other priests were all over Saudi Arabia. And he said, ‘You guys are not the problem, don’t worry. We’re not after you, we’re after the terrorists.’” The week we spoke, 500 people were arrested in a sting directed at terrorist organizations.
He makes the arrangements for his ministry by e-mail and telephone, since nothing printed is allowed.
“Of course they monitor all that,” says the priest. “They have internal security personnel all over the kingdom, doing all sorts of jobs. They’re anything from street sweepers to bankers and lawyers. All parts of society are listening to where there could be troublemakers and terrorists.”
I ask if he ever worries that there are plain-clothed interlopers at his Masses. “I’m sure there are,” he says. “I’m sure they come in once in a while. They know what’s going on and want to make sure I’m not preaching anti-Saudi sentiments.” Naturally, he’s careful about what he says. “My hands are tied in that they could revoke our privilege,” he says. “If they wanted to send me home saying I was disruptive of society, they could do that, and that would harm the Church because people then wouldn’t be able to receive the sacraments.”
There are plenty of issues he must be careful talking about, such as the lack of employment rights for Christians in Saudi Arabia. A large number of immigrants, particularly domestic servants who tend to be Filipino Catholics, live lives of near-slavery. “I will talk about these things once in a while, but I won’t harp on about them,” says the priest. “Like I said, they’ve been changing slowly. Obviously other countries in the Gulf are more progressive in that respect. Saudi is always the slowest one.”
Does all of this have a dulling effect on one’s faith? Quite the contrary. It helps you realize that the Church “isn’t the building, it’s the people,” he says. “People where I’m at don’t take their faith for granted like people in my own country.” He says that being in this “strange and foreign” world drives people to embrace their faith more. Everything else is unfamiliar — and there is not much else to do in the desert.
“I must say it inspires me to just be a part of this,” says the priest. “It’s wonderful to see a faith in the Church which I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world. A lot of parishioners go back to their homelands and then come back to Saudi and say, ‘It’s just not the same.’ There’s a more intimate relationship among the people in Saudi.”
Edward Pentin is
based in Rome.