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Catholic church inaugurated on Arabian peninsula

SALALAH, OMAN
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Archbishop thanks Sultan of Oman for permits to build St. Francis Xavier in Salalah.

A Catholic church has been inaugurated on the Arabian Peninsula, in the Omani city of Salalah.

St. Francis Xavier Church has a capacity of 600 seats. An adjacent multi-purpose hall can accommodate another 400 people.

The church, named for the patron saint of the missions, is likely to serve mostly a community of foreign workers from places such as the Philippines. Oman is 86% Muslim and only 6.5% Christian. About 60,000 Catholics reside in Oman, and there are currently five parishes—two in Muscat, two in Salalah and one in Sohar.

A civil inauguration ceremony on Saturday was attended by Archbishop Francisco Montecillo Padilla, the Apostolic Delegate to the Arabian Peninsula; Bishop Paul Hinder, Vicar Apostolic of Southern Arabia, and Ahmed Khamis Masood Al Bahri, director of the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Religious Affairs of Oman.

Al Bahri, in a speech, expressed joy for construction of a church, which took 18 months to complete, according to Fides, the Vatican’s missionary news service. He said that priests, men and women religious, and laity can now carry out pastoral work.

Archbishop Montecillo expressed the gratitude of the Catholic Church towards Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said, who granted all the permits for the construction of the church. He said that Omani civil authorities showed their benevolence in meeting the spiritual needs of Christians living in the country, and also showed the world that “Oman enjoys peace because of this religious tolerance, and commitments taken on to preserve it.” The archbishop said the new church is a sign “that God always walks beside us in good and bad times, even if our prayers are not fulfilled immediately.”

Bishop Hinder noted that in all Masses taking place in Oman, prayers are offered for the ruling authorities and for the good of the whole country. Bishop Hinder presided over a solemn Mass which liturgically inaugurated the church on Sunday.

While neighboring Saudi Arabia has been slow in granting greater freedom for non-Islamic faiths, Oman’s toleration of Christians goes back to at least the 1970s. In 1979, Sultan Qaboos bin Said donated the land for the construction of the first church of Salalah. In 1981, an ecumenical center dedicated to the Three Magi was also inaugurated at that church, to recall the tradition according to which one of the three Wise Men who sought the Christ Child in Bethlehem came from the region. The area now referred to as Oman was known since ancient times for the production of incense and myrrh.

Sultan Qaboos also reportedly played a role in securing the release of a Salesian missionary who had been held by terrorists for months following the March 2016 attack on a Missionaries of Charity home for the elderly in neighboring Yemen. In September 2017, after the release of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil, Bishop Hinder wrote in an email, “I wish to thank His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos and his services in Oman, the Vatican Security, the authorities of Abu Dhabi and many others who discretely and successfully have worked for the release of Fr. Tom.

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