VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Despite rising tensions in Yemen and continued fighting between government and rebel forces, Catholic officials said the six Salesian priests and the 20 Missionaries of Charity assigned to the country have remained.
“Our priests are safe” and the sisters continue to work in four cities, “including the hot spot” of Sanaa, said Capuchin Father Gandolf Wild, secretary of the vicariate of southern Arabia. He spoke to Catholic News Service March 25 by telephone from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where the vicariate is based.
“There are not many Christians left” in Yemen, the Capuchin said. Before Iranian-backed Houthi Shia militants took control of the capital Sanaa in September and launched a major offensive, the country had about 2,000 Catholics, including foreign embassy personnel.
There may be 1,500 Catholics still in the country, he said, “but most cannot come to church — and that includes the embassy personnel” who have not been recalled by their governments. “It is a very poor country and very unsafe — not just for Catholics.”
Four Catholic parishes still exist in Yemen, he said, although the only parish with a church for the past 40 years is in Aden. It was established in 1840 and for 90 years it was the only parish in the entire area covered by the vicariate, the Capuchin said. The Salesian priests continue to celebrate Mass in Aden, Hodeidah, Sanaa and Taiz.
The sisters and the priests in Yemen have what Pope Francis has described as “the courage to be present in the midst of conflict and tension, as a credible sign of the presence of the Spirit,” wrote Bishop Paul Hinder in his pastoral letter for Holy Week and Easter.
Bishop Hinder is apostolic vicar of southern Arabia, which covers the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen. In his letter, he called on the vicariate’s estimated 1 million Catholics — almost all foreign workers — to devote Wednesday of Holy Week to prayer and fasting for persecuted Christians throughout the Middle East.
“We can say the novena of Our Lady of Perpetual Help with this special intention as we also call Mary ‘Help of Christians.’ Let us remind ourselves that she is the patroness of our parish in Sanaa,” he said in his letter.
“I am sure that among those killed during the last 12 months by the so-called ISIL (Islamic State) were Christians who, with the help of God, echoed the words of Jesus on the cross. They are the true heroes and the seed of real peace, even though the fire of hatred may not be extinguished immediately,” the bishop wrote.
“Reconciliation and peace are gifts we can obtain only through prayer,” Bishop Hinder wrote. He asked the region’s Catholics to celebrate Holy Week and Easter with special prayers for “all who are discriminated against, tortured, expelled from their homes, abused and killed.”