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an interview with Bishop Paul Hinder by Don Duncan

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Born in Switzerland in 1942 to a family of farmers, Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar of southern Arabia, followed a long and varied road to his present post shepherding nearly a million Catholics in Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. He entered the Capuchins in 1962, was ordained a priest in 1967, studied canon law and obtained a doctorate in theology in 1976. After more than a decade in Rome as general councilor for the Capuchins worldwide, he was ordained a bishop in 2004.

From his base in Abu Dhabi, Bishop Hinder sat down with ONE to discuss the progress and challenges of the Catholic community in the Persian Gulf.

ONE: Do you find working in an Arab monarchical system different from your previous work experience in Switzerland and Rome?

Bishop Paul Hinder: I come from Switzerland, a democratic culture with participation of the people, a reliable legal system and so on. In a monarchy, you suddenly have to go to the court, to the palace or to the ruler or the ruler’s representative if you need things done. That is something very strange to my heart — or it was when I started. In the meantime, I had to learn how to work within that system. What I had to learn, and I am still learning, is that living here requires patience — patience in the relationship you cannot establish in five minutes; to be seen to take care of friendships without selling your soul; to show you understand the problems in building the nation. We have to keep in mind that within the last 50 years, they were catapulted from the Bedouin lifestyle to a highly modern and technologically advanced situation, so the locals are also adapting.

ONE: The Gulf States are becoming more tolerant of Christian migrants. The number of churches is increasing. And yet, Christian religious activity is limited to defined spaces. Does this present any problems?

PH: It’s complex. We have limited space and there’s simply too much to do. What we are doing is taking the five loaves and two fish and distributing them, knowing it’s not sufficient but hoping that it will somehow multiply on the ground. The parish priest of St. Mary’s in Dubai was here a few minutes ago. He said that during nine Masses before Christmas, they had 10,000-12,000 Filipinos every evening. How do you deal with so many people? You can’t take them all for confession. On one end, it’s a pastoral opportunity, but you cannot establish individual relationships. This is one of the challenges: to meet the needs, knowing we lack the means, the manpower and the infrastructure to answer them all.

ONE: Some Catholics have mentioned that the lack of space has led to an opportunity for other churches to proselytize and convert. Is this happening?

PH: Sometimes, not having enough space means some people may prefer to go where they can move more easily: the Pentecostal community, the Anglicans, the Orthodox. There is also proselytism. Here on the compound parking area, Pentecostals or the “born-again” Christians distribute leaflets and so on. Never would I have this idea; we accept converts if they come to us freely, but we do not actively propagate Catholicism among the Protestants or the Orthodox.

ONE: Does ministering to a congregation of migrants limit your work?

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