How the Vatican's man in the UAE fell in love with the desert

When Bishop Paul Hinder first heard of the Emirates 50 years ago, he never imagined he would make it his home

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On December 2, 1971, Bishop Paul Hinder was in his small hometown of Bussnang, Switzerland, when a news announcement came on the radio that piqued his interest.

“I remember it so vividly,” he told The National.

“The news announcer said ‘from today onwards there will be a new country on the map of the world called the United Arab Emirates’.

“I thought, where is this country, do people already live there?

“I got out my atlas, set about trying to locate it and I came across a small sliver of land in the Middle East. It was marked ‘Abu Dhabi’ at that time.”

I got out my atlas, set about trying to locate it and I came across a small sliver of land in the Middle East. It was marked ‘Abu Dhabi’ at that time. I thought, where is this country, do people already live there?
Bishop Paul Hinder

Fast forward 51 years and that unknown piece of land has been Bishop Hinder’s home for the past two decades.

On December 12, 2003, he was elected auxiliary bishop for the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia by Pope John Paul II and ordained bishop in Abu Dhabi the next year.

Two years later, he was elected Apostolic Vicar of Arabia and replaced Bishop Bernard Gremoli, who had served in Abu Dhabi for 29 years.

As he prepares to retire this summer, Bishop Hinder, 80, won’t admit to being a celebrated man, but he is held in high regard for helping to promote religious tolerance in the region.

From green mountains to beige desert

If you ask Bishop Hinder if he ever expected to find himself living in the Middle East, he will tell you no.

And still today, 18 years later, he recalls how he struggled with the idea of moving so far away from home.

“I first visited the UAE in 1997 while serving as the General Councillor of the Capuchin order,” he said.

“I had a special responsibility for the Capuchins in the Middle East.

Paul Hinder stands with his family after performing his first mass in Switzerland in 1967.

“Never did I think I would land in that country I heard about on the radio in 1971, let alone live there.

“I remember the dust and vast desert landscape. I was shocked. I was a boy who was born and raised in greenery-filled Switzerland.”

In the years that followed, Bishop Hinder made several trips to the GCC before taking up permanent residence at the Bishop’s House in St Joseph's Cathedral, Abu Dhabi.

More churches for migrant worshippers

His mission when he moved to the Emirates was to build more places of worship for those living away from home.

Many of the Catholics in southern Arabia were, and still are, migrant workers from India, Africa, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines.

He helped establish the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in 2008, which was the first Catholic church to open in Qatar, and expanded offerings around the UAE, too.

St Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Ras Al Khaimah, St Mary's Catholic Church in Al Ain, and St Paul's Church in Abu Dhabi are just a few. He also had a hand in establishing several catholic schools around the country under the St Mary's brand name.

But perhaps the final cherry on top was helping to set up the Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral in Bahrain last year, which is the largest Roman Catholic church in the Gulf.

He said it was a fitting final last effort before he pondered the decision to retire this year.

Hesitant about role

Prior to his appointment in Abu Dhabi, Bishop Hinder said he was hesitant about taking up the role.

“I had an agreement with the minister general that I would look for good candidates to replace [Bishop Bernard Gremoli] but that I would not be that person,” he said.

“A suitable replacement would be someone that could speak several languages well.

“At that time I didn’t even think my English was up to scratch, so I didn’t think I was the right person.”

But a year later he received the news he had been elected Apostolic Vicar of Arabia.

Today, Bishop Hinder is fluent in German, French, English and Italian, speaks some Spanish and a few words in Arabic.

Upon taking up the role, Bishop Gremoli advised Bishop Hinder to visit his parishes in the Gulf every year.

“He told me being a shepherd to the people is to be close to them," he said.

“Since I have been in Abu Dhabi I have visited all my parishes without fail, each year.”

Milestone events

Bishop Hinder spoke of the significance of the pontiff's milestone visit to Abu Dhabi in February, 2019, describing it as a "a step forward in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Muslim world".

His visit also gave rise to the International Day of Human Fraternity through his signing of the declaration known as the Document on Human Fraternity alongside Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar.

“That document did not come from ground zero,” he said.

“There was a deep history which led to its establishment and it is related to Sheikh Zayed, the father of the nation.

“In his genius wisdom he had this goal to create a federation of emirates with true openness towards the non-Muslims working and living in the country.

“Tolerance was in his blood and he passed this gene on to the future policy of the UAE.”

From humble beginnings

Born and raised on a small farm in the mountainous village of Bussnang in Switzerland, Bishop Hinder was the youngest of four boys.

His journey to priesthood was inspired by his local church leader.

Growing up in a religious family, they would make a two-hour round trip on foot to their local church every Sunday, "come hail, rain or snow".

“I grew up on a small farm with seven cows, I had very humble beginnings,” he said.

“I enjoyed going to church and seeing how our parish priest celebrated mass and inspired worshippers.

“I became and altar boy aged 11 and that really shaped the path I followed in the years that followed.”

Bishop Hinder joined the Capuchin order in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1967.

From a boy who had never left his home village to a man of religion that has visited nearly all four corners of the globe, Bishop Hinder said he plans to retire in Switzerland later this year.

And for his successor, Bishop Paolo Martinelli, he has one piece of advice.

“I am the shepherd of a very lively congregation,” he said.

“Continuing to bring life and joy to these people is now your job, but it is vital that you keep neutral or you will not succeed in your role as a leader.”

Updated: May 10, 2022, 2:34 PM