'A Cross Underneath One's Clothing Is Okay': An Interview with the Bishop of Arabia

The Swiss-born Paul Hinder is the Catholic Church's bishop of Arabia. Pierre Heumann of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche spoke with him recently on "inter-religious dialogue," the political tendency of Islam, and the difficulties confronted by practicing Christians in Arab countries. The interview appears here for the first time in English.

John Rosenthal

(Translator)

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Bishop Hinder, in 2009 Switzerland will be deciding whether minarets should be permitted in the country. How would you advise Swiss voters to vote?

Every public building wants to stand out. That's normal and legitimate.

Minarets are supposed to mark the presence of Muslims in Switzerland. Is a political claim to power also connected to this symbolism?

I cannot rule out the possibility. But I would answer with another question: why should the minaret of a mosque not be visible? On the other hand, a 200-meter-high minaret would certainly be an affront and would disrupt the city's appearance. I would say that this has little to do with religious freedom.

The disruption would be less severe than in the case of the building of the glass skyscraper of a bank.

But the bank is also a sort of religion. (Smiles) What would interest me more than the building of minarets is what is preached inside the mosque, in what language the faithful are addressed, and how the imams have been trained.

About what in particular would you be concerned ...

A completely separate subculture could evolve, which would have explosive potential. The tower is not necessarily the issue ...

... in the last analysis a matter for building inspectors?

Rather the culture that is being practiced next to the tower is the issue. It is no offense against freedom of religion if one poses the basic demand that Muslims who live in a Western country recognize fundamental rights and the constitution. In this regard, there is certainly a lot of room for improvement.

In the Arab countries for which you are responsible as bishop, church towers are taboo.

In Qatar recently, we were permitted to build a church large enough to accommodate 2,700 of the faithful. There is not a church that big in all of Switzerland. But it is true that in the agreement with the government it is clearly stated that no religious symbols should be visible from the exterior. It is only in the interior that Christian symbols are tolerated. If I had not accepted this condition, my request for the building permit would have been rejected. I did not even apply for the permission to build a church tower.

Are you permitted to be seen in the street in your vestments?

We voluntarily practice a certain degree of discretion, in order not to provoke anyone. But in most of the countries of the [Arabian] Peninsula, it is not a problem to wear the clothing of a church official.

Are Christians persecuted in your region?

In my territory, there are no indigenous Christians or surviving minorities from pre-Islamic times like in Iraq. As far as foreign Christians are concerned, there is not any active persecution. There are, however, practices that could certainly be construed as having the character of persecution.

What are you thinking of?

In my diocese, a Christian could hardly ever become a citizen. The only exception is Bahrain. If you practice any religion other than Islam, this frequently results in discrimination in one's profession.