The Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia
(Latin: Vicariatus Apostolicus Arabiae Meridionalis) is a territorial jurisdiction of the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church based in Abu Dhabi, covering the following countries of the Arabian Peninsula: United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen. The Apostolic Vicar in charge since 2005 is the Swiss born Bishop Paul Hinder OFM Cap. It was established in 1888 as the Apostolic Vicariate of Aden and entrusted to the Capuchin Franciscans of Lyons, France. A year later the name was changed to Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia (the whole Arabian Peninsula: Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia) and remained the same until 31 May 2011 when by decree of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in Rome the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia (United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, with residence of the Bishop in Abu Dhabi, UAE) and the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia (Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, with residence of the Bishop in Awali, Bahrain) were established.
For almost a hundred years the Apostolic Vicar of Arabia lived in Aden, Yemen. On 1st January 1974 St. Joseph's Church in Abu Dhabi became the See of the bishop. In 1916 the Vicariate was entrusted to the Capuchins of the Tuscan Province in Florence, Italy. They provided the majority of the priests as long as they had vocations, but after the discovery of oil the number of Catholics grew so fast that many priests from other Capuchin provinces, especially in Asia and the Middle East, were asked to send missionaries. Priests of other religious institutes and diocesan priests also work in the vicariate. In 2011 the Ius Commissionis, the responsibility to find mission personnel for the Southern and Northern Vicariates was given to the General Superior of the Capuchin Franciscan Order worldwide. About 100 priests and 80 sisters, assisted by hundreds of trained volunteer catechists, serve the more than two million Catholics in the Arabian Peninsula.
Christianity in Arabia
Christianity was widely spread among the tribes of Arabia in the first four centuries of the Christian era. A famous poet Labid (لَبيد), in a poem said that, during a journey from Mecca along the coast and Yemen, as he came near certain villages, he was greeted by the crowing of the cock and the sound of clappers, (wooden instruments used instead of church bells) summoning the faithful to prayer. There were in Arabia many monasteries during the pre-Islamic era. It is not clear how Christianity spread in Arabia in the early centuries, however, the Acts of the Apostles mention that St. Paul retired in Arabia following his conversion. In the time of Caracalla, Roman emperor (211–217), one finds an established bishopric in Basra (البصرة) and by the middle of the 3rd Century, there were three synods of bishops. At the Council of Chalcedon (451) twenty bishops were present, whose jurisdiction extended to the south of the Arabian Peninsula.
After the dawn of Islam, Christianity with all its structures — churches, monasteries, dioceses — gradually disappeared from this region. For over a thousand years Christianity was almost totally absent from Arabia.
The modern Christian presence in Arabia goes back to the first half of the 19th Century. On 8 February 1840, the Secretary of the Apostolic Delegate in Syria, Fr. Bonajunta Foguet of the Servites of Mary, wrote to the Propagation of Faith in Rome to report the presence of a good number of Catholics in Jeddah (the principal port of Arabia) without any priest to shepherd them. Fr. Foguet authorized by the Propagation of Faith arrived in Jeddah on 27 January 1841. At the first Mass he celebrated on 31 January at the residence of the French Consul only four Catholics were present. On the following Sunday there were seven. By the time it took Fr. Foguet to arrive in Jeddah Christians had left en masse provoked by the economic and political situation there. It was concluded that the mission in Jeddah, as in the whole of this coastal region would be useless, but also unsafe for the priests. Hence Rome approved the suggestion made by the missionaries and opened the Mission in Aden, appointing Fr. Serafini of the Servites of Mary as the Vice- Prefect. He arrived in Aden by caravan from Cairo, through the arid and harsh desert on 28 May 1841.
Mission in Aden 1840 onward
Fr. Serafini, writes on the city of Aden, “it is situated in the centre of a strange sea, and is composed of huts made of wood and cane, of different sizes, but built very artistically and beautifully. On the other hand, those of the British personnel are so constructed that they live in mansions resembling Roman palaces. The city is ringed by a double or triple chain of mountains formed of hard rock which serve as boundary walls fortified with cannons. The high mountains bury the town in such a way that the inhabitants cannot even breathe properly. The climate is so hot that, at time, it reaches 100°F, especially during the two months of July and August, when the sun stands overhead. The inhabitants are Muslims, Somalis, Jews, British, Irish and Portuguese. Muslims are few, Somalis and Jews are numerous, and they are ferocious… and here I am, poor self, in a hut that serves as residence and as church. I have a mat that serves me as bed … The language of the country is Arabic — mixed up with Indian, Portuguese and English”.
Soon, Fr. Foguet, faced by loneliness and uselessness in Jeddah arrived in Aden on 5 August 1841 and started studying the Indian language as Fr. Serafini could minister in English. In 1844, Fr. Serafini was recalled to Italy and Fr. Foguet was nominated Vice-Prefect. He was soon joined by Fr. Rabascall from the mission of Calcutta. The two went on to build a school and an orphanage. Fr. Rabascall was recalled to India and Fr. Foguet had to resign due to health reasons. Fr. Marco Gradenigo, a Venetian, took over in 1845 and built a small church dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows. Fr. Marco, also a victim of illness and years of unpleasantness returned to Italy in 1848. The Mission of Aden was attached to the Apostolic Vicariate of Gallas under the care of Mgr. Massaja. He confided the mission to Don Luigi Sturla, a priest from Genoa, who worked zealously with Bro. Pasquale to build a large church dedicated to the Holy Family (October 1855). In 1854, the Propagation of Faith raised the Mission to an Apostolic Prefecture, and Don Sturla was appointed Prefect. He was succeeded in 1858 by a Spanish Capuchin Fr. Giovanal of Tortosa, who came from Bombay. He, with the help of Bro. Pasquale constructed a church and a burial ground for the Catholics at Steamer Point. He was succeeded by Fr. Benedict from Iglesias and later by the Italian Fr. Alfonso Cianfanelli from Macerata, who established a much needed school and entrusted it to the Good Shepherd Sisters of Cairo. Sadly, on 6 August 1871, he succumbed to the epidemic which devastated much of Aden. The Mission of Aden went through several changes of Prefects and administrators from 1871 until June 1886 when the French Capuchin Mgr. Louis Lasserre took charge and became the Prefect Apostolic. He reorganized the school for girls and confided the management to the Franciscan Sisters of Calais. He went on to build a school for boys which he assigned to the Marist Brothers. He obtained a plot from the Governor and built a beautiful Cathedral in Steamer Point and dedicated it to St. Francis of Assisi on 26 June 1892.
On 4 May 1888, Rome elevated the Prefecture to an Apostolic Vicariate entrusted to the Capuchins of Lyons, with Mgr. Lasserre as the first Apostolic Vicar. On 28 June 1889, the small Vicariate of Aden became the Vicariate Apostolic of Arabia, comprising the whole Arabian Peninsula and extending its boundaries up to Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. It had about 15000 Catholics among its 12 million inhabitants.
Vicariate Apostolic of Arabia 1889 - 2011
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