By Linda Bordoni
Twice in the past week, Yemen’s rebels have launched missile and drone attacks on a military base in the United Arab Emirates hosting US and British forces. Analysts warn the latest escalation of violence could flare into a regional danger.
But the over 7-year-war in Yemen has already killed tens of thousands of civilians and fighters and created a humanitarian disaster, a tragedy the Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia says that a pandemic-preoccupied world is not interested in.
The conflict pits Yemen’s internationally recognized government, backed by a coalition including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Lack of will for crisis resolution
In an interview with the weekly Catholic Spanish magazine “Alfa&Omega”, Bishop Paul Hinder says there is no true will to reach an agreement between the fighting parties.
Bishop Hinder heads the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia (AVOSA), which comprises the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen.
He decries the fact that the people of Yemen continue to suffer war, disease, famine, internal displacement because of the war that broke out in 2014 is in fact “a silenced conflict”, and that right now “the world is only interested in the pandemic. The wars are in the background or even in the third place.”
Zero international interest in Yemen conflict
Bishop Hinder also notes that there are “fewer economic interests at stake in Yemen.”
“Psychologically, it is seen as something far away. But this is a fatal self-deception, because it has a strategic position. The regional powers in the Middle East have taken notice, but the others seem to be sleeping... Except if they can sell weapons!” he says.
The Vicar Apostolic also highlights that the UN predicts the number of victims will rise to 400,000 by the end of the year, and that there are fewer safe areas and more internally displaced people, even in areas that were relatively peaceful until a short while ago.
“All parties involved are blaming each other, and there is no real will to reach an honest truce,” he says.
Regarding the embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia on the country, he expresses his opinion that embargos can be used to force the counterpart to sit down and negotiate, but that it is the civilian population that suffers the consequences, “not the Armed Forces or the governments.”
Asked what role the Catholic Church plays in Yemen, Bishop Hinder says it has never had such a strong presence as in recent years, even though the war has weakened it.
He explains that in Yemen's capital and in Hodeidah there are eight Missionary Sisters of Charity and one priest, “but the situation of division and insecurity limits their activity.” Caritas Poland also has an office in the south of the country.
Paul Hinder, who was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Arabia and Yemen 17 years ago, says it was already a country full of tensions. However, he has always been able to visit the four parishes without problems. “In Saudi Arabia, I was even able to enter communities that live in a sort of tolerated underground,” he says.
Looking back, he notes that the other Gulf countries have been developing at breakneck speed, while Yemen has been increasingly isolated by its neighbors, “who did not want to see the most populous country in the area take off.”
“As for religious freedom, or rather freedom of worship, I have seen remarkable progress that became evident when the Pope visited Abu Dhabi in 2019. Although improvements were already noticeable long before that,” he says.
He explains that there are no churches in Saudi Arabia, “however, we find communities with a lot of faith, very vital, where the faithful give strength to each other.”
The last question Bishop Hinder answers regards a statement he makes in his book, “A Bishop in Arabia: My Experience with Islam”, in which he says that in many ways life in the Persian Gulf is a life "on the periphery."
What he means, he says, is that here, “We Christians are respected, sometimes even loved; however, we are not considered citizens.”
Most, he adds, do not belong to the richer classes, and many have experienced the drama of human trafficking or other types of slavery.
People who come to visit and stay in hotels know little about those who live here permanently. Nor can ecclesiastical realities handle information.
Sometimes, he says, not even the Church of Rome knows the exact situation of the Church in this part of the world. “Very often I am perplexed to discover the ignorance expressed in the question ’Are there Christians in Arabia?’"