UAE Portrait of a Nation: Bishop relishes role in region

Ministering to a million Catholics in UAE, Oman and Yemen is his mission

Bishop Paul Hinder , Catholic Bishop for Southern Arabia, worked to secure the release of a priest held hostage in Yemen.  Pawan Singh / The National
Bishop Paul Hinder , Catholic Bishop for Southern Arabia, worked to secure the release of a priest held hostage in Yemen. Pawan Singh / The National

Bishop Paul Hinder will never forget September 12, 2017 -- the day Indian priest Tom Uzhunnalil was freed by hostages in Yemen. For 18 months leading to that day, Bishop Hinder worked tirelessly behind the scenes from his Abu Dhabi home to help secure Father Uzhunnalil’s safe release.

“We didn’t know for many months what had happened to him,” said Bishop Hinder. “Of course, we hoped he was alive, we worked on it.”

As Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, Bishop Hinder is the highest ranking Catholic official in a jurisdiction covering the UAE, Oman and Yemen. The area is home to 992,000 Catholics, including about 65 priests and 55 nuns working in 15 parishes.

Father Uzhunnali was kidnapped March 4, 2016 after gunman stormed a care home for the elderly in Aden, killing 16 people, including four nuns.

“It is not easy for a bishop to get a phone call one morning, ‘We just received news that four sisters have been killed and 12 of their collaborators,’” Bishop Hinder said. “I felt responsible because the sisters were there or remained there because of me.”

Aden had once served as the administrative headquarters for the Catholic church in Arabia. It was there that the vicariate was established in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII. As political tensions began to rise, the office was moved to Abu Dhabi in 1974. It is currently located in the St. Joseph’s Church complex in Al Mushrif.

Of the 22 Catholic nuns who recently worked across four parishes in four cities in Yemen, only seven remain there now. Most have been evacuated from the country since the care home massacre, said Bishop Hinder.

“Those in Aden have been killed except one, and those from Taiz had to be removed. Those in Hudaydah had to be moved to Sana’a,” he said.

No priests are left in Yemen.

“I’m regularly in touch with the sisters still working in Sana’a in the situation of the war,” said Bishop Hinder. “I hear them in their serenity, they don’t complain, they say, ‘No, no, it’s OK. Sometimes we hear bombing but until now it (is far away).’ These are people who in a broken world are living in integrity, they are not perfect, but it’s a drop of peace which is falling into a world of conflict.”

At 75, Bishop Hinder has dedicated 50 years of his life to the priesthood. He was the youngest of four sons raised in a “good, practicing Catholic family” on a small dairy farm in Switzerland. He said he felt a “kind of calling” to join the friary.

“The simplicity of the life, the simple life of the Capuchins had an appeal,” said Bishop Hinder. “For me the step was not so extraordinary because even back home we had a very simple life, I was used to that.”

Before being appointed bishop, he led a long career working as a general councilor in Rome for the worldwide Capuchin Order. The council was charged, in part, with proposing new candidates for to fill the role of bishop of Arabia.

“It was a very difficult situation because it’s not evident to find the right man for this complex situation,” said Bishop Hinder.

Then, one day a letter arrived from the office of the ministry of the pope himself. It read: “We understand that it’s very difficult to find the right man (for the role of bishop of Arabia) but I invite you to propose a new list of three people.”

That was paragraph one, said Bishop Hinder.

“Paragraph two: ‘I want to see on this list the name of Paul Hinder.’”

Although he never harbored aspirations to become a bishop, or to leave Rome for Abu Dhabi, Dr Hinder said he dutifully accepted the assignment.

“When you join a religious community like the Capuchins, then you make a vow of obedience and you go where you are told to go,” he said.

Dr Hinder moved to Abu Dhabi in 2003 and was appointed auxiliary bishop of Arabia. The following year, he took over from Msgr. Bernardo Gremoli, who retired. Although fluent in German, French and Italian, language posed one of the biggest early challenges for him in the UAE, he said.

“English I didn’t know very well, that was a terrible challenge, especially for the preaching and the homilies,” said Bishop Hinder. “Oh my God, I’d sweat. And still now, by the way.”

During those 14 years, the number of parishioners more than doubled in Southern Arabia, new churches have been built and some older ones renovated. Land has recently been secured for a new Catholic school in Ras Al Khaimah and a new church in Ruwais, both to be built within the next few years.

While these are certainly Bishop Hinder’s most visible accomplishments, he said they are not necessarily his biggest.

“I would say to feed spiritually the people that is the main purpose and main achievement and I hope that this partly I have done, until now, what I could,” he said.

The role he played in securing the release of Father Uzhunnalil is something he said he will never forget.

“I would say finally on the 12th of September, when he was released, that I had also worked behind the curtain hard for that,” said Bishop Hinder. “These are experiences you won’t forget, but they are not necessarily things you put on the wall, because for me the most important thing is that the man is now free.”

At his age, most bishops enter retirement. And while he has offered his resignation to the Pope, he was told he is still needed here.

“I reminded the holy father in October in a private audience I said ‘look you know I am now past 75’. Then he laughed and said ‘yes it’s OK, you continue’,” said Bishop Hinder. “So I am expecting within maybe two years, three years we will see somebody else is found.”

Looking back at his career as a bishop in Arabia, he described it as “very challenging and interesting.

“I have to admit, I liked it,” said Bishop Hinder. “I would say there are probably not many bishops who have had such an interesting life as I have in the Gulf, with all the challenges, and that’s also something which is – it’s a kind of gratification. It’s not the essential, but it helps you also to overcome certain particulars and meticulous problems we have. You have always to put them in the big frame of the essential.”

Name: Bishop Paul Hinder

Nationality: Swiss

Age: 75

Languages: German, French, Italian, English

Favourite movie: Billy Elliot (Before following a religious vocation, Bishop Hinder wanted to be an actor and dancer.)

Post-retirement plans: To return to Switzerland and live in one of the few remaining Capuchin friaries, happy to be relieved of his responsibilities. If health of body and mind remain, to read and study things he could never do in the past.

Published: December 21, 2017 06:57 PM


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