Issued by the Catholic Center for Studies and Media - Jordan. Editor-in-chief Fr. Rif'at Bader - موقع أبونا

Published on Wednesday, 10 July 2024
Oman: Laying the foundation stone of a new pastoral center in Ghala
The vicar of Southern Arabia officiated the inauguration of the construction of a. Mgr. Martinelli: “For children, young people and adults to grow in faith”. The diplomatic work of the Sultanate in a Middle East torn by conflicts. There are still steps to be taken in terms of rights and gender equality.
Dario Salvi/ :

An event that embraces the entire community and, at the same time, the face of a migrant and frontier Church that is growing in a context in which, despite the difficulties and unresolved critical elements, there is a wide margin of freedom both at a social level and in the practice of worship.


The ceremony to lay the foundation stone of a new building, part of the parish of Ghala in Muscat, capital of the Sultanate of Oman, was an occasion of celebration for the entire Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia which includes neighboring Yemen and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where it is based. The function was held last weekend and concerns a structure that will play a strategic role in the development of parish activities and in responding to the needs of the faithful, who have long been asking for a place for catechism or to promote meetings, in a missionary perspective.


At the service of training

“I am happy to be here with you,” emphasized Msgr. Paolo Martinelli, Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia, “and to be able to lay the first stone of a new building that will serve this parish.” The new structure, he continued, will serve as a “pastoral center for Christian formation initiatives, for catechism and for the residence of priests” and will allow for better organization of pastoral care “for children, young people and adults to grow in faith.” In his speech, the prelate recalled the role of prophets in the Bible and in the Second Vatican Council, which assigns a “prophetic” role to the people of God. “In a certain sense,” he said, “we are all prophets, as we were baptized, we received Confirmation, we have a sense of faith and above all we are animated by different charisms that the Holy Spirit never ceases to give to the Church.” “In our time,” he warns, “we have many lay associations and movements that help us rediscover our baptism and be prophets, that is, bearers of the word of God in daily life, in our families, among young people, friends, in society and in schools. To be a prophetic people,” he concludes, “We must train ourselves in Christian life constantly.”


In recent years, the Catholic community in Oman has grown significantly, highlighting the need for new spaces and infrastructure, especially in the Ghala area, which has seen a real demographic boom over the years. The relocation of the main ministerial offices and the economic and business heart from Ruwi to Ghala itself has led to a significant growth in the population, including many Catholic families, while at the same time highlighting the inadequacy of the existing structures. One figure above all: the number of children has gone from less than 100 at the beginning in 1987, to over 2,000 today. The ecclesiastical structures were not only inadequate in size, but also lacked the modern means to ensure effective catechetical instruction and for parish and community activities. To continue to fulfill its mission, the Church therefore had to invest in a more resilient and larger infrastructure.


Stone for the new generations

The idea of ​​a new pastoral building emerged during the first visit of the then new vicar Msgr. Martinelli in February 2023. The apostolic vicar, who has made the Christian formation of children, young people and adults one of his priorities, considering it one of the pillars of the Church's mission in the Gulf, recognized the importance of this request. It was also fueled by the willingness of many parents and lay people to be catechists, with the need for adequate space to carry out the mission. The parish priest, Fr. George Vadukkut, presented the design of the new building in January 2024 and, after the approval of the vicariate and the government, the blessing ceremony of the construction site was held on June 13 and the laying of the first stone in recent days.


The ceremony was also attended by Dr. Ahmed Khamis Masood Al Bahri, Director of Oman’s Ministry of Religious Endowments and Religious Affairs. In introducing his work, Fr. George stressed the crucial importance “for the new generations” who need “motivation” and “guidance” from the Church “to navigate the complexities of modern life”. The priests’ residence, he warned, will provide “a supportive environment” for the clergy to live and work, enhancing their “ability to support and lead our community”. “This project,” he concluded, “is a testament to the extraordinary collaboration and dedication of our parishioners, which reflects our shared commitment to fostering a strong and faith-filled community”.


Religious freedom, political balancing act

The Sultanate of Oman is located in the south-eastern part of the region, is divided into 11 governorates and 61 provinces and has a population of about 4.5 million people; they are predominantly Arabs, but there is also a significant percentage of foreign workers from other countries in the Middle East, as well as the Philippines, India and Pakistan. Like many nations in the area, it has an economy based on hydrocarbons, especially natural gas, combined with the tourism sector. Islam is the state religion and Sharia is the main source of law, but the principle of religious freedom and the prohibition of discrimination on religious grounds are also affirmed.


Some 86 per cent of the inhabitants are Muslim, Christians represent 6.5 per cent of the population equal to about 300 thousand people, 70per cent of whom are Catholic, 13 per cent Orthodox and  per cent Protestant; the remaining 11 per cent is made up of independent groups or small communities. The faithful are almost exclusively economic migrants from other Asian nations, in particular the Philippines and India, and live in large urban centers, from the capital Muscat to Sohar and Salalah. The territory is part of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, based in Abu Dhabi, while there are four parishes, two in Muscat, the capital, one in Salalah and one in Sohar, and 12 resident priests. In March 2022, the local Church celebrated its first priestly ordination, Fr. Dickson Eugene , of the Salesian province of Bangalore and raised in Oman.


On the political level, Muscat has been maneuvering behind the scenes for years as a balancing element between Iran (Shiite) and the Sunni universe, from Riyadh to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to Qatar, which have long been fighting proxy wars in Yemen and other areas of the regional chessboard. In the past, Oman obtained Vatican recognition for its contribution to negotiations on the release of the Indian Salesian Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil , kidnapped in Aden in March 2016 in the jihadist attack on the house of the Missionaries of Charity in which four nuns died. A relationship consolidated over time and which led the Holy See and Muscat to establish full diplomatic relations in February 2023 , with the opening of a nunciature and embassy and the aim of promoting "greater mutual understanding" and "strengthening friendship and cooperation".


Despite enjoying general respect for religious freedom, there are also critical elements in the recent past, such as the trial of four people in a case dubbed “Ghaith spaces”, from the name used on social media for discussions and confrontations. The members of the group were arrested in 2021 on charges of violations of the law on the internet and information, for having spread material that violates “the values ​​of faith and public order” and imprisoned.


Activist movements denounce the still current practice of female genital mutilation in some areas, despite its ban in 2019 following a law that declared the practice illegal. There is also a lack of strict laws against domestic violence and protection policies for victims, and there is no gender equality and equal rights in cases of marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody. Finally, on the subject of migrant workers, a law came into force on 25 July last year for the private sector, in which 80 per cent are foreigners: some improvements have been introduced, including the reduction of the maximum working week from 45 to 40 hours, the increase in paid sick leave and the possibility for employees to leave an employer if the latter does not pay wages for two consecutive months even if there are gaps in terms of discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment.