Our Catholic Siblings in the Mideast

Last Friday Pope Benedict signed a document that came out of the synod on the Church in the Middle East. Appropriately it was the feast of the Exultation of the Cross. With the turmoil in those countries, our fellow Christians are suffering. Before my visits to Arabia, I was in the dark about the Middle East, not to mention the Church there. I had to google Abu Dhabi, and it took a month to pronounce it correctly! Let me tell you about one group I met: the Arab Sisters who minister in Sharjah, the most Muslim emirate in the United Arab Emirates.

The Rosary Sisters run two schools in Sharjah for more than two thousand students. Most of the students and school personnel are Muslim. Because the country mandates two hours of religion class a week, the Catholic students do receive a Catholic education. One goal of the schools is to promote good relations between Muslims and Christians. A Muslim man whose children attended one of the schools proudly identified himself as a Rosary school graduate, as was his father.

The Sisters were founded in Jerusalem in 1880 by Mother Marie Alphonsine, who was told by the Blessed Virgin to found a community for Arab women. Their motherhouse is in Jerusalem. Part of their habit is a rosary worn around the neck. But because Christian symbols are banned, the Sisters forgo this. (Even church buildings are not allowed to have a cross on them.) In my talk  to the teachers on classroom discipline I was asked to omit any references to the Trinity. The principal whited-out “Holy Spirit” on my handout.

During my stay with the Sisters, who were all from Jordan, I asked if I would be able to join their community. They immediately responded, “No,” but then out of politeness said, “Well, maybe.” At one meal the Sisters delighted in serving me the kind of soup that Esau traded his birthright for.

Sister Madeleine took me to meet another principal at a school similar to theirs. This principal’s Chaldean community was centered in Baghdad. She told me that the doors of their novitiate were riddled with bullet holes. The Sisters were beginning their three-day fast in honor of Jonah, prophet to Nineveh in Iraq.

Since my visit, the news has carried horror stories about the Arab countries. I wonder how the many friendly Catholics I met in the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman are faring. Please join me in keeping them in prayer.

A graduate of Notre Dame College told me that her sister-in-law is the superior of the Rosary Sisters in Jerusalem. Small world! Do you have any connections with the Gulf countries?


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