In Oman: The foundation stone of a church at the crossroads between Shia Iran and the Sunni world

The Vicar of Southern Arabia officiated at the inauguration of construction work on a new pastoral centre in Ghala. Msgr. Martinelli: 'For children, young people and adults to grow in the faith'. The sultanate's diplomatic work in a conflict-torn Middle East. There are still steps to be taken in the area of rights and gender equality.

Jul 10, 2024

By Dario Salvi

An event that embraces the entire community and, at the same time, the face of a migrant and frontier Church that is growing in a context in which, despite the difficulties and unresolved critical elements, there is a wide margin of freedom both socially and in freedom of worship.

The foundation stone-laying ceremony for a new building, part of the parish of Ghala in Mascate, capital of the Sultanate of Oman, was a festive occasion for the entire Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which includes neighbouring Yemen and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where it has its seat.

The function was held last weekend and concerns a structure that will play a strategic role in the development of parish activities and in responding to the needs of the faithful, who have long been asking for a place for catechism or to promote meetings, in a missionary perspective.

At the service of formation

"I am happy to be here with you," emphasised Monsignor Paolo Martinelli, Apostolic Vicar of South Arabia, "and to be able to lay the foundation stone of a new building that will be at the service of this parish. The new structure, he continued, will serve as a "pastoral centre for Christian formation initiatives, catechism, and priests' residence" and will make it possible to better organise pastoral care "for children, youth, and adults to grow in faith".

In his speech, the prelate recalled the role of prophets in the Bible and the Second Vatican Council, which assigns a 'prophetic' role to the people of God. "In a certain sense," he affirmed, "we are all prophets, as we have been baptised, we have received Confirmation, we have a sense of faith and above all we are animated by different charisms that the Holy Spirit never ceases to give to the Church. "In our time," he warns, "we have many lay associations and movements that help us to rediscover our baptism and to be prophets, that is, bearers of the word of God in daily life, in our families, among young people, friends, society and schools. To be a prophetic people,' he concludes, '[...] we must train ourselves in the Christian life constantly.

In recent years, the Catholic community in Oman has grown significantly, highlighting the need for new spaces and infrastructure, especially in the Ghala area, which has experienced a real demographic boom over the years.

The relocation of the main ministerial offices and the economic and business heartland from Ruwi to Ghala itself has led to a substantial growth in the population, including many Catholic families, while highlighting the inadequacies of the existing structures.

One figure above all: the number of children has risen from less than 100 at the beginning in 1987, to over 2,000 today. The church structures were not only inadequate in size, but also lacked the means of modernity to guarantee effective catechetical instruction and parish and community activities. To continue fulfilling its mission, the Church therefore had to invest in a more resilient and larger infrastructure.

A stone for new generations

The idea of a new building for pastoral care emerged during the first visit of the then newly appointed vicar Monsignor Martinelli in February 2023. The vicar apostolic, who has made the Christian education of children, young people and adults one of his priorities, considering it one of the pillars of the Church's mission in the Gulf, recognised the importance of this request. It was also fuelled by the willingness of many parents and lay people to be catechists, with the need for a suitable space to carry out the mission.

The parish priest, Fr. George Vadukkut, presented the design drawing of the new building in January 2024, and after approval by the vicariate and the government, a blessing ceremony was held on 13 June, and the laying of the foundation stone in recent days.

The ceremony was also attended by Dr. Ahmed Khamis Masood Al Bahri, director of Oman's Ministry of Religious Endowments and Religious Affairs. In presenting his work, Fr George emphasises the crucial importance" for the "new generations" who need "motivation" and "guidance" from the Church "to navigate the complexities of modern life".

The priests' residence, he explains, will provide "a conducive environment" for clergy to live and work, enhancing their "ability to support and guide our community".

"This project," he concludes, "is a testimony to the extraordinary cooperation and dedication of our parishioners, reflecting our shared commitment to fostering a strong, faith-filled community.

Religious freedom, a political balancing act

The Sultanate of Oman is located in the south-eastern part of the region, is divided into 11 governorates and 61 provinces, and has a population of about 4.5 million people; they are predominantly Arabs, but there is also a substantial percentage of foreign workers from other Middle Eastern countries, as well as the Philippines, India and Pakistan.

Like many nations in the area, it has an economy based on hydrocarbons, especially natural gas, combined with the tourism sector. Islam is the state religion and the Sharia is the main source of law, but the principle of religious freedom and the prohibition of denominational discrimination are also affirmed.

Eighty-six per cent of the inhabitants are Muslim, and Christians make up 6.5% of the population of about 300,000 people, of whom 70% are Catholic, 13% Orthodox and 6% Protestant; the remaining 11% are independent groups or small communities.

The faithful are almost exclusively economic migrants from other Asian countries, particularly the Philippines and India, and live in the large urban centres, from the capital Mascate to Sohar and Salalah.

The territory is part of the Apostolic Vicariate of South Arabia, based in Abu Dhabi, while there are four parishes, two in Mascate, the capital, one in Salalah and one in Sohar, and 12 resident priests. In March 2022, the local Church celebrated the first priestly ordination, Fr Dickson Eugene, from the Salesian province of Bangalore, who grew up in Oman.

Politically, Mascate has for years been manoeuvring behind the scenes as a balancing element between Iran (Shia) and the Sunni universe, from Riyadh to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, which have long been fighting proxy wars in Yemen and other areas of the regional chessboard.

In the past, Oman has been recognised by the Vatican for its contribution in the negotiations on the release of Indian Salesian Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, who was kidnapped in Aden in March 2016 in the jihadist assault on the house of the Missionaries of Charity in which four religious women died.

A relationship consolidated over time and which led the Holy See and Muscat in February 2023 to establish full diplomatic relations, with the opening of nunciature and embassy and the goal of promoting "greater mutual understanding" and "strengthening friendship and cooperation".

While enjoying general respect for religious freedom, there is no shortage of critical elements in the recent past, such as the trial of four people in a case dubbed 'Ghaith spaces', from the name used on social media for discussions and confrontations.

The members of the group were arrested in 2021 on charges of violations of the Internet and Information Act, for disseminating material that violates 'the values of faith and public order' and imprisoned.

Activist movements denounce the still current use of the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in some areas, despite a ban in 2019 following a regulation that declared the practice illegal.

There is also a lack of strict laws against domestic violence and protection policies for victims, and a lack of gender equality and equal rights in marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody.

Finally, on the subject of migrant workers, a regulation for the private sector, where 80 per cent are foreigners, came into force on 25 July last year: a number of improvements were introduced, including the reduction of the maximum working week from 45 to 40 hours, an increase in paid sick leave and the possibility for employees to leave an employer if the latter does not pay wages for two consecutive months, even if there are loopholes in discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment.--Asia News

Total Comments:0