Skip to comments.Secret Priestís Life of Danger (Dodging Extremist Police to Serve Immigrant Flock in Saudi Arabia)
Posted on 08/29/2008 12:07:24 PM PDT by NYer
In the early Church, Masses were sometimes celebrated in the catacombs to hide from the authorities. In post-Reformation England, priests would disappear into Catholic homes and dispense the sacraments in secret.
On a recent trip to the Persian Gulf, I met with a priest who also ministers secretly in modern day Saudi Arabia. For his own security and that of his flock, we cannot name him, give his precise location or his nationality. Yet, he was happy to reveal an interesting insight into his ministry in Saudi Arabia, a country in which no churches are allowed. In hidden ways, he is one of a handful of clergymen who have been allowed to minister to Christian immigrant workers in the country for the past 50 years. It may be one of the richest countries in the world, but his life is not easy.
You have to be careful, he says. We can carry out our ministry as long as its undercover. As long as we stay quiet and dont make a big deal about anything, theyll leave us alone. Because they know were there.
That must be quite unnerving, since the they in this case are Wahhabi extremists who consider priests their enemies.
We would be jailed and executed if they had their way, the priest says. Thats always the threat. If we ever got caught by the matawas [religious police], theres not much they can do because our sponsors would most likely rush us out of there. Of course, then wed be done, and wed never come back again.
There have been several instances when priests in Saudi Arabia had been arrested, he recalls, though it is now rare. The worst case was when a priest spent 24 days in jail.
We have to be very careful about printed materials, he explains, adding that even bulletins and hymnals are out of the question. We use projectors to project the hymns and readings so people can see them.
The priest ministers to immigrant workers in the country. He told me there are 15,000 Catholics in his area, mostly Filipinos 1.2 million Filipinos work in Saudi Arabia, an immigrant group second only to Indians. These two groups make up 80% of his flock.
The way I see it, says the priest, I have as little to do with Saudis as possible. That sounds bad, but the problem is when you start mixing with Saudis, then you have to explain who you are. I simply cant explain who I am and why Im there. I know a few Saudis and a few Saudis know me, but they know what I do, so I dont have to worry about what I say or do. But I tend not to mix with too many Saudis because theres no good way to explain this if they bring up the subject and they know what youre doing, then I wouldnt be afraid to talk about it.
He says Christians help keep the country peaceful by being unthreatening. You preach by the way you live, thats our great mission and duty here, he says.
Were After the Terrorists
This priest remembers when one internal security officer came to one of his services. I thought, Oh my God, whats happened? But one of our parishioners brought him. He knew who we were and where our other priests were all over Saudi Arabia. And he said, You guys are not the problem, dont worry. Were not after you, were after the terrorists. The week we spoke, 500 people were arrested in a sting directed at terrorist organizations.
He makes the arrangements for his ministry by e-mail and telephone, since nothing printed is allowed.
Of course they monitor all that, says the priest. They have internal security personnel all over the kingdom, doing all sorts of jobs. Theyre anything from street sweepers to bankers and lawyers. All parts of society are listening to where there could be troublemakers and terrorists.
I ask if he ever worries that there are plain-clothed interlopers at his Masses. Im sure there are, he says. Im sure they come in once in a while. They know whats going on and want to make sure Im not preaching anti-Saudi sentiments. Naturally, hes careful about what he says. My hands are tied in that they could revoke our privilege, he says. If they wanted to send me home saying I was disruptive of society, they could do that, and that would harm the Church because people then wouldnt be able to receive the sacraments.
There are plenty of issues he must be careful talking about, such as the lack of employment rights for Christians in Saudi Arabia. A large number of immigrants, particularly domestic servants who tend to be Filipino Catholics, live lives of near-slavery. I will talk about these things once in a while, but I wont harp on about them, says the priest. Like I said, theyve been changing slowly. Obviously other countries in the Gulf are more progressive in that respect. Saudi is always the slowest one.
Does all of this have a dulling effect on ones faith? Quite the contrary. It helps you realize that the Church isnt the building, its the people, he says. People where Im at dont take their faith for granted like people in my own country. He says that being in this strange and foreign world drives people to embrace their faith more. Everything else is unfamiliar and there is not much else to do in the desert.
I must say it inspires me to just be a part of this, says the priest. Its wonderful to see a faith in the Church which Ive never seen anywhere else in the world. A lot of parishioners go back to their homelands and then come back to Saudi and say, Its just not the same. Theres a more intimate relationship among the people in Saudi.
May we never take for granted the freedom to celebrate our faith in the US!
i met a seminarian last year who knows a priest in saudi. he says that he has mass in the desert and people come out to meet him in the desert. they have mass then all disappear again!
This is reminiscent of what happened to the Catholic Churck in the Ukraine. Their churches were burned down and they were told to convert to the Orthodox faith. Many went underground. There were a few priests who would show up at a house where linens were quickly taken from a hidden drawer and placed on a table so the Mass could be celebrated. Afterwards, those in attendance would stagger their disappearances but the priest would not leave until the wee hours of the morning, under cover of darkness. Some of the icons rescued from the churches were physically attached to the back of armoires or hidden behind walls. The big difference, though, is that they witnessed the end of the oppression. There is very little hope for those in Saudi Arabia ... at least for now.
Amazing, reminds me of Padre Pro.
bumpus ad summum