They can be compared to a drop in the ocean or, more appropriately, to a handful of sand in the desert.
Christians, in Yemen, are a few thousands (estimates range from 2,500 to 4,000) with only four priests and some communities of Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity. For many years now they haven’t had a resident bishop: the Apostolic Vicar for Southern Arabia, Mgr. Paul Hinder – a Swiss Capuchin – is based in Abu Dhabi, 2,000 kilometres from Sanaa. “I planned to hold a pastoral visit to Yemen in these weeks, but I had to renounce due to the risk of sparking unpleasant reactions”, he tells Southworld.
As all Yemenis, Christians have been in fact deeply affected by the conflict that is ravaging the country for months, opposing the government led by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the predominantly Shiite Houti rebels. The latter are backed by Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and reportedly by Iran. “Insecurity – Mgr. Hinder admits – has been on the rise recently, but it comes as no surprise, the situation has been very dire for at least two years”. Yemeni Christians, indeed, can be taken as an example of strength: “The theme of my latest pastoral letter is how to find peace even in difficult contexts and I also make a reference to the condition of our brothers and sisters in Yemen”, the Vicar explains.
Even if obviously worsened by the war and the previous demonstrations and clashes which forced Saleh to leave, the situation for Christians was already difficult before these events. Despite being possibly referred to in the Bible as the kingdom of the Queen of Saba, Yemen has never seen a strong Christian presence. As for Catholics, the only city where churches were formally built was Aden, in the south. “There were three of them – Mgr. Hinder says – the first one was built around 1850 by the British the other two followed: the cathedral in Steamer Point, where my predecessors were based before moving to Abu Dhabi, and the Capuchins’ church”. Although two out of the three were deconsecrated during Communist rule, since the end of that regime the churches have been used as places of worship again. However, the bishop adds, just “one hundred Catholics, more or less, can attend mass on a weekly basis, also because of insecurity”.
In other places, such as Hodeida, Taizz or Sanaa the Church rented places in which the faithful can gather. “Yemen – Mgr. Hinder points out – holds official diplomatic relations with the Holy See, but no churches have been built recently”. The biggest community can be found in Sanaa: here a few hundred people can attend masses, although cautiously. As in the neighbouring countries, most of them are strangers who came to Yemen for working purposes, mainly from either the Philippines or India. A small number of Africans and a few Yemenis are also part of the community. The last group, Mgr. Hinder explains, “is a legacy of the past, but it’s slowly disappearing”. This is mainly due to marriage rules in the country: “It’s not easy to find a Christian partner – the bishop says – and if in a mixed marriage one of the spouses is a Muslim, the children also will. We can’t do anything about it”.
Even before the civil war, difficulties for all Christian denominations were reported. In a report published shortly after president Saleh’s ouster, the US neo-conservative think-tank, Gatestone Institute, stated that “Christians in Yemen cannot (…) go to church freely. Society would work on having them enter Islam”. According to a source quoted in the report under condition of anonymity, an “increased pressure” on Christians was a common fear after the fall of Saleh, but even under the old regime “Christians were still subjected to persecution and scrutiny by the police apparatus”. The man, a Yemeni national, blamed this on what he called the country’s “apostasy law”. Activities perceived as proselytism, indeed can have serious consequences: recently, an Ethiopian citizen was sentenced to three months in jail and expelled for life from the country. He had handed a Bible in Arabic to a local man, who became interested to the message of the Gospel.
A more nuanced picture is sketched by the US State Department’s report on religious freedom. In its latest version, it acknowledges that “some local customs, codified in various laws and policies, discriminate against women and persons of non-Muslim religious groups”, as in the case of marriages mentioned above. Nevertheless “followers of other religious groups are free to worship according to their beliefs and to wear religiously distinctive ornaments and dress”. Another sensitive issue is that of education. Public schools, according to the report “provide instruction in Islam but not in other religions”, but both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens may attend private schools that do not teach Islam and most foreigners choose to do so.
Social pressure, which is mostly felt by the few converts form Muslim families, is often a bigger obstacle than norms: this is also the main reason why many Christians do not attend masses. Their response to these challenges, Mgr. Hinder says, is mostly pragmatic: “They know that being vocal is of no use”. However, “between that and oblivion, a middle way can be found: these communities should not be forgotten”, the Vicar adds, asking Christians from all over the world to pray for their brothers and sisters. (D.M.)