By Linda Bordoni - Abu Dhabi
It was a miracle in itself that Bishop Paul Hinder managed to find time to actually sit down and talk to the Vatican News team the day before Pope Francis was due to arrive in Abu Dhabi, the first time ever a Pope sets foot on the Arabian Peninsula’s soil.
Bishop Hinder, who is the Vicar Apostolic of Southern Arabia, told me that he and his priests and collaborators had only six weeks to prepare for the momentous occasion.
But he had a smile on his face and a look of gentle patience as he answered questions in four different languages before rushing back to his office to catch up with some very pressing deadlines as hundreds of people queued in the courtyard outside his window to collect free tickets for Tuesday morning’s papal Mass.
I asked Bishop Hinder, who heads Abu Dhabi’s St. Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral, to tell me about the people who make up his flock.
“My faithful”, he told me, “are all migrants of different social status.” They come from all over the world representing some 100 different nationalities.
Most of them, he said, come from Asia, mainly the Philippines and India, but there are also Africans, Europeans, and Americans… :“It is a multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-coloured Church.”
I asked him what their life is like here, in a country that is so foreign in so many different ways.
Abu Dhabi, he said, is similar in some ways to the so-called Western world: well-developed and with high standards in many regards.
However, it is profoundly different in that it is a deeply Islamic society in which only some 20% of the population are citizens while the remaining 80% are foreign migrants, here to work.
He didn’t elaborate, but I gathered that although many spend the years of a life-time here, actively contributing to the development and wealth of the nation, they remain “expats” or “foreigners”, never fully integrating into the fabric of Emirati society.
Amongst them, he continued, the majority are Muslims but there are also Christians, who are those most overjoyed for the Pope’s visit.
Bishop Hinder said it has been enormously stressful to have to organize “an event that is very special” in such a short time, but that fortunately most of the work has been done by the government.
He wistfully points out that the “Catholic” part of the visit is quite short, taking place on Tuesday morning with a visit to St Joseph’s Cathedral, then the Mass, “and then it is already time for the departure”.
Background to the visit
Bishop Hinder explains that, although the visit came upon them so suddenly, the invitation was actually issued at least one and half years ago (Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed visited Pope Francis in the Vatican in 2016).
Bishop Hinder said that he too had spoken to Pope Francis on the occasion of a private audience during which he told the Pope: “It would be nice if you could come” pointing out, however, that it was not for him to make the official invitation.
So, he said, the invitation came from the Crown Prince and from the government, but the occasion was provided by the interreligious event (the Global Conference on Human Fraternity), and also to the Pope’s special relationship with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar who will be at the Conference.
A complicated but long-standing relationship
To my question on whether new territory is being charted or if Pope Francis is treading footsteps that have already been trod, Bishop Hinder said it’s new in the sense that no Pope has been here before. On the other hand, he continued, it’s not completely new because it is already written in the history of both sides.
He explained that the nation had chosen to adopt an attitude of tolerance at the end of the 1950's thanks to Sheikh Shakhbut’s far-sighted vision that pushed him to cultivate an excellent relationship with Christians and allow the first Catholic church to be built in Abu Dhabi in 1965. This course, he said, continued with Sheikh Zayed, the Founder of the Nation and with the present rulers.
Meanwhile, on the side of the Church, Bishop Hinder said, “ever since Vatican II steps have been undertaken for major mutual understanding – of course with ups and downs in the history of the relationship– as always is the case in complicated relationships!”.
St. Francis and the Sultan of Egypt
In fact the relationship, Bishop Hinder noted, has roots that go far back in time to when St. Francis, the founder of his own Capuchin order, made what is known to be perhaps the very first, prophetic step in the history of Christian-Muslim relations, when he travelled to Egypt to meet and to talk to the Sultan, who in turn, offered him hospitality and friendship.
“It is a happy coincidence that in 2019 we are celebrating 800 years of this event when St. Francis met the Sultan of Egypt, and by the way, it was during a time of war, and St. Francis had the courage to cross the borders and the war front”, he said.
“I think”, he concluded, there is an analogy with Pope Francis who is not afraid to cross borders and say ‘we have to be in touch, never mind what others think, never mind what happens, because there is no other way to face each other than to look each other in the eyes and exchange words’”.