As the Church in the Arabian Peninsula begins its Holy Year for the 1,500th anniversary of the Martyrs of Arabia (523-2023), the second of two Holy Doors was opened at Mass on Thursday evening, November 9, in St. Joseph's Cathedral in the United Arab Emirates' capital of Abu Dhabi.
The Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia, Bishop Paolo Martinelli, OFM Cap., presided over the Mass as part of the Extraordinary Jubilee proclaimed in the Apostolic Vicariates of Northern and Southern Arabia for the occasion.
During the Mass, Bishop Martinelli opened the Holy Door at the Cathedral, to which Pope Francis made a private visit during his February 2019 visit to Abu Dhabi.
Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, Prefect of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue, present these days in Abu Dhabi for the Global Faith Leaders Summit in view of COP28, and the Apostolic Nuncio to the United Arab Emirates, Archbishop Christophe Zakhia El-Kassis, took part in the celebration.
The Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia, Bishop Aldo Berardi, delivered the homily, recalling the ancient roots of Christianity in the region.
When modern Christians first came to the Gulf region, he said, they thought that Christianity arrived with them and the discovery of oil.
"Then one day, unexpectedly, archeologists found the remains of monasteries, churches, and crosses in the rocks and the deserts," said Bishop Berardi. "Therefore, we are not a new Church. We are the continuation of that Church."
He recalled that the lives of ancient Christians in the region were not easy and that they faced various persecutions because of their love for God.
Though modern Christians cannot proselytize in the Gulf, he said, "we must live as witnesses to Jesus every day: in our daily lives, our work, our families, our honesty, our consistency of life, and our relationships with others."
This," concluded Bishop Berardi, "is our modern-day trial: to be witnesses in life and in love."
Arabian Jubilee commemorates historic martyrs
On 4 November, Bishop Berardi opened the Holy Door in Awali, Bahrain, for the Jubilee, while Archbishop Eugene Martin Nugent, the Apostolic Nuncio to Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, delivered the homily.
St. Arethas and Companions were Arab Christians from the ancient city of Najran in ancient Yemen, in present-day Saudi Arabia, who were victims of a multifaceted conflict between the ancient kingdoms of Himyar, in Yemen, and Axum, in Ethiopia. They were martyred in the year 523 AD.
Hagiographic literature presently available in Syriac, Greek and other languages indicates a large number of Arab Christians from Najran were severely persecuted and eventually sentenced to death for their faith in Christ.
Martyrs preferred to die rather than deny Christ
In a message released on Thursday, Bishop Martinelli, the Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia, prayed that God might give Christians in the region peace and Pascal joy, expressing his gratitude to the Lord for the Jubilee of the 15th centennial anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Arethas and companions.
He called it an event "that concerns all Christians in the Gulf and touches us deeply."
"The testimony of these martyrs," he said, "has transmitted to us faith in the risen Christ, our Savior and Redeemer. Saint Arethas and his companions were faithful to Christ; they did not accept compromises. They preferred to die than deny their Christian faith."
A Church of migrants
He recalled that the Gulf's Christian community is part of a long history of Christians who have lived in the Gulf.
While acknowledging they are "a Church of migrants," coming from different countries with different languages and traditions, Bishop Martinelli noted that by coming to live in this land, "we are part of the history of the Church" in the region.
"But we cannot remember these holy martyrs," he said, "without asking ourselves what their testimony means for us today."
Delving deeper into Christian testimony
"This Jubilee Year," he said, "is an opportunity to delve deeper into the meaning of the Christian testimony that we are called to bear every day with our lives."
The Second Vatican Council, he said, "explained it very well," when stating: "Since Jesus, the Son of God, manifested His charity by laying down His life for us, so too no one has greater love than he who lays down his life for Christ and His brothers."
Celebrating the martyrs, added Bishop Martinelli, means "venerating those who, through a particular spiritual gift, were able to conform totally to Christ and His love to the point of making the ultimate gift of their own lives."
Furthermore, the Apostolic Vicar said, it means renewing our commitment to Christian testimony in our world and society.
Humble testimony walking together
"For this reason," he insisted, "I invite you to pray through these holy martyrs and to deepen the meaning of Christian testimony in this region."
Bishop Martinelli invited the region's faithful to offer a "humble testimony" that enables them to walk together with the faithful of other religions and other faiths.
"We are all brothers and sisters, because we are loved and desired by the one God, Father of all," he said. "Together, we are called to build a more fraternal and human world."
Jubilee full of blessings
The Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia concluded by praying that the Jubilee Year might be an occasion to grow in faith and bear witness to the Gospel.
"I wish you a wondrous Jubilee full of blessings from heaven through the intercession of Saint Arethas and companion martyrs," he said.
Pope Francis is set to return to the United Arab Emirates on 1-3 December to attend the COP28 climate summit in Dubai.