Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Churches of Aden

by : T.S. Raymond

In a country that is 99 percent Muslim, where the vast majority of women are veiled in black, culture and traditions are rooted in conservative Islamic interpretation, the legal system is based on Shari’a, and Islamist groups are on the rise, one would assume there is very little space or tolerance in Yemen for other religious groups. But to make that assumption would be to deny the long and diverse history Yemen has shared with a host of different civilizations, belief systems, and cultural communities.

To take the present situation at face value is to forget the long lineage of Yemeni Jews who have lived and worshipped in the country under government protection since the second century AD, serving as traders and artisans in Yemeni society. It is to dismiss the influence of Ethiopian rule around the fifth century AD, which introduced Christianity to the Yemeni people. And it is to ignore the influence of the British Empire, which occupied the port of Aden and opened Yemen to a myriad of people and cultures from outside.

But today, though small synagogues and homes decorated with the Star of David still stand in Yemeni villages, most of the Yemeni Jews have left the country. The Yemeni Christian population is virtually non-existent, save for a few families in Aden. On a whole, it is difficult to discern the religious diversity that once existed in Yemen. In most cities and towns in Yemen, mosques are the sole visible institutions of religious worship.

The exception is Aden, which is home to the last few Christian churches remaining in Yemen. Most of the twenty-two churches that used to operate in Aden during British control have all been abandoned. Perched atop a massive stone overlooking the Crater marketplace, an old Anglican church surrounded in scaffolding has become a hideaway for qat chewers. In Tawahi, another church stands abandoned beside the miniature Big Ben clock. Throughout the city of Aden, one can see the skeletons and empty shells of a multi-faith society.

Yet despite the rising homogenization of religion in society, there are still four actively operating churches in existence in Aden to this day. They maintain a low profile in Yemen and seek to be a minimal presence in Aden. But entering through their large double doors, one discovers a faith that has been quietly preserved throughout the years, continuing its traditions and practices against declining numbers in congregation and the tides of Islamism.

Slipping into the St. Francis of Assisi Roman-Catholic Church, visitors are greeted by the low murmur of prayers being recited as ten to fifteen parishioners kneel, hands clasped and eyes closed. Behind the pulpit, stained glass representations of religious images are surrounded by bright lights and framed by the high and arching ceilings. The voices and organ music (replicated through electronic synthesizer) echo across tall walls and create a sense of calming unity.

Ever so often, the white-clad nuns in the front rows recite responses to the prayer, which ripple through the pews. The mass follows a typical Catholic liturgy and the congregation alternates between kneeling to pray, standing to sing, and sitting to listen to the priest. The evening ends with the taking of communion and the concluding rites. Still surrounded by a silent calm, members of the congregation slowly shuffle out of the church.

Out in the balmy evening air, the congregation mingles freely, introducing themselves to new guests and chatting with familiar faces. Small, cheerful nuns in white habits laugh and chatter away with old friends. It is a multi-racial group of churchgoers, consisting predominately of Indians and Filipinos, with a small number of Europeans, Ethiopians, and Yemenis amongst them.

Father Varghese John Puthangady, S.D.B., comes out of the side doors to greet the parishioners. A small, elderly man from Kerala, Puthangady is the ordained priest for the three Catholic churches in Aden: St. Francis of Assisi Church in Tawahi, Holy Family Church in Crater, and Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church in Ma’alla. His austere manner from the mass is replaced with a warm smile and handshake as he welcomes his congregation. He has been a priest for thirty-five years and has been working in Yemen for five. He is a member of the Don Bosco Salesian fathers in Bangalore, which inherited administration of the church in 1987 from the Capuchin Franciscan Friars.

Built by the Franciscan missionaries from Florence over 150 years ago, the Catholic churches enjoyed a strong following in Aden under British rule, and for several years housed the Bishop for the Middle East. This period of free and open practice came to a halt in 1967, when the Marxist government requisitioned all churches in Aden. At the same time, the Marxists also shut down the four Catholic schools being run by the churches. Father Angelo, the priest at the time, remained inside the Tawahi cathedral, maintaining the final bastion of Christian faith during the Communist era. “If he had run away,” Puthangady explains, “the government would have seized the church.”

In 1972, though the churches had not yet been reopened, a request from the Yemeni government brought nuns from the Mother Teresa Sisters of Charity in Calcutta to the country. The Sisters established several elderly and disabled care centers throughout Yemen. Today, twenty-six nuns provide nursing services to the abandoned, disabled, elderly, and convalescent. Their activities for them represent Christian values, but are provided as secular services to local communities.

There are four Catholic priests working in the main governorates of Sana’a, Hudeidah, Taiz, and Aden. Outside of Aden, priests are forced to rent out houses to hold their services, due to the lack of churches. In Aden, the presence of churches enables Catholics to practice more freely. “In Aden, they know about the church, and so they are more tolerant,” says Puthangady. “They don’t trouble us, and the government is generally supportive.”

Though the Yemeni Constitution upholds religious freedom, it is impossible to deny the changes that are happening within society with the ever-increasing rise of conservative Islam. Churches are forced more and more to maintain a cautious and low profile. “We used to have beautiful bells in the church which we would ring,” the priest recalls fondly, “now, we don’t ring them anymore. We don’t want to create any animosity.”

Much of this wariness arises out of a fear of anti-Christian sentiment. In 1998, three nuns were shot on their way out of the disabled health clinic where they worked in Hudeidah. “They were killed by an anti-Christian group that was opposed to other religions and assumed that we were trying to convert people,” says Puthangady, who witnessed the transfer of the bodies to the Ma’alla cemetery. “Even the Yemenis were very sorry…after all, they were doing good work. They just wanted to help people.”

Despite the attack, the Sisters of Charity and other Church leaders continued maintaining a presence in Yemen. But the priest now shies away from working with Islamic groups, afraid that his actions might be misinterpreted as evangelism. “When people are curious about our religion, or ask for Bibles, we have to be cautious, because it could be a trap.”

Further down the road, the white walls surrounding Christ Church and Ras Morbat Clinic bisect the road leading towards the beaches of Tawahi. Serving as the last surviving Anglican church in Aden, it has followed a somewhat different trajectory than the three Catholic churches. Built in 1863 as a garrison church for British forces in Aden, it was once one of many Anglican churches in the area. In 1970, it was seized by the Communist government and converted to a storage building and a gymnasium.

Starting in 1987, the Bishop of the Cyprus and the Gulf region engaged in negotiations with the government of South Yemen to secure the return of the church. The unification of North and South Yemen brought about a new government, which placed as a condition to the diocese that the church could be reopened if it agreed to also establish a medical clinic for the people. During these negotiations, the Bishop also secured a fatwa from the Grand Mufti of Yemen, Sheikh Ahmed Zabara, which stated that Christians should be permitted to worship freely in Christ Church, “just as Muslims are free to worship in the West.” With this and the establishment of the clinic, the Church was restored and rededicated in 1997.

Reverend Nigel Dawkins, from London, has recently taken over the position of pastor at Christ Church, Aden. He holds daily prayer meetings in the morning with the staff at the church, and one service a week. Like most Anglican churches in the Arabian Gulf, services are held on Friday mornings in accommodation with local schedules. His congregation ranges from about thirty to forty people during the year, and consists of people from the Philippines, Canada, Netherlands, Pakistan, and Germany, to name a few.

But religious services are only a small part of the church’s activities. For the most part, Dawkins’ time is spent running the clinic, setting up a vocational training institute to teach Yemenis and Somali refugees carpentry work, and serving as honorary port chaplain as part of the Mission to Seafarers program. For him, these services are the most rewarding part of his work. “I feel strongly that my role here is to run the church for expat Christians, and to run a clinic imbued with Christian values,” Dawkins explains. “My purpose here is not to convert people, but to show the love of God through the work that we do at the clinic.”

The Ras Morbat clinic started in 1996 as a clinic for mothers and infants, which soon expanded to general practitioner services for Tawahi residents. For a 200 YR fee, people would have unlimited access to basic health services, doctors, nurses, and medicine for a year.

But what makes the church most well known in Yemen is its eye clinic, for which patients come from hundreds of miles away to receive eye care. Opened in 2002, with an operating theater and laboratory, the clinic was set up to treat cataracts, glaucoma, provide eye tests, glasses, etc. Patients pay 200 YR for basic testing, and are charged a subsidized fee for more complex operations. Unlike the general clinic, this center is open to all Yemenis.

The clinic has allowed the church to become a respected and tolerated fixture in the local community. “It was an opportunity for us to make a difference,” says Dawkins, “And lots of local community members come inside our gates to receive high quality treatment. They can see the church is caring for them.” Dawkins hopes to further expand the work of the Church, work more closely with local organizations and mosques to better serve the community, and initiate new programs to provide assistance and support to the Yemeni population.

Because Christ Church is the only Protestant church in Yemen, its congregation is not only Anglican, but contains a diverse group of people of various Protestant denominations. “The style of service and worship is different,” Philippa, a British woman who has lived in Yemen for seven years, explains, “but we come here to worship God, in any style. It’s very important that here, where Christians are a minority, they gather and worship together and don’t let small differences divide the community.”

Rex, a conservative Baptist from the Philippines, has been coming to the church with his family since 2007. Though the liturgy of the Anglican church is different from the liveliness that he is used to, he nonetheless attends the services because “Our faith must be practiced. By coming to church, we feel fellowship with other Christians…Before I discovered the church, I was searching for a place to worship…I was in that blind state.”

Working in Yemen poses many challenges to the pastors and priests. The church leaders must learn to work with a multi-national congregation, many of whom are non-native English speakers. To meet the linguistic needs of their members, the Catholic Church holds a Malayalam service for South Indians, and Christ Church holds a weekly Amharic service for Ethiopians.

Most parishioners and church leaders have found that the long-standing presence of the churches in Aden and the services provided by the churches, which come without conditions or evangelism, have helped the local Yemeni community to respect and accept their presence. Philippa is on the Council for the Mission for Seafarers, which assists ship captains and crew in ensuring their safety and health on board the vessels, and her husband, a medical professional, helps out at the clinic. “We demonstrate God’s love to the community by practically serving them. This is for us what religion should be about,” she says.

At St. Francis Assisi Church, a friendly and outgoing young lady, about 27 years old, is one of the last few remaining Yemeni Christians in the country. She describes how Christianity used to be much more widespread in Yemen, through the Ethiopian influence and mixed couples in Aden. Under social pressure, many Yemeni Christians have converted to Islam or left the country. No doubt as a Yemeni, she has faced severe pressure to conform, yet she still continues to attend the weekly masses at each of the three Catholic churches in Aden, and has won the respect and admiration of other congregation for her resilience. “It’s a matter of believing. Many Yemenis believe that Islam is the last religion and don’t understand how Christianity can still exist. But we continue to keep our faith.”

When asked if she has faced any hostility from her neighbors and friends for her religious beliefs, she says, “My best friends are Muslim. The majority of Yemenis are very good…we are the only Christians living in our neighborhood and thanks be to God, the people treat us with respect. We are citizens here in Yemen and don’t feel we are different. The biggest problems come from people from the outside, from the villages or the countryside, who don’t understand our faith.”

Indeed, though the Churches may often feel limited in the work they are able to do in a predominately Muslim country, they perhaps see themselves as a present-day Father Angelo, holding down the last bastion of the Christian faith for those who still want to practice. Puthangady quietly describes his role in Yemen, “It is enough to just be here. By being here, we help the church continue in the country so that Christianity does not completely disappear.”


No comments:

Post a Comment