Yemen’s abandoned churches, remnants of a fading past

For centuries, Yemen hosted minorities, including Ismaili, Bahai and Jewish communities.
Friday 08/02/2019
Caught in the crossfire. A view of the Roman Catholic Church of Saint Francis of Assisi and its missing-head statue of Jesus in the Tawahi district in Aden. (AFP)
Caught in the crossfire. A view of the Roman Catholic Church of Saint Francis of Assisi and its missing-head statue of Jesus in the Tawahi district in Aden. (AFP)

Vandalised, caught in the crossfire, burned to the ground: Yemen’s churches, once filled by small but diverse Christian communities, have been abandoned after years of devastating conflict.

As Roman Catholic Pope Francis prepared to make his first trip to the Gulf, neighbouring Yemen — in the grip of a conflict that has triggered what the United Nations called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis — is losing the last remnants of the cultural diversity that marked its rich history.

Four official parishes in Yemen are listed by the Catholic Church and officials say the country is home to a handful of Christians who mostly live in hiding as religious conservatives on all sides grow stronger.

Sana’a, the rebel-held capital, and Aden, the bastion of the rival government, are each home to a Catholic cathedral — or what was once a cathedral.

In Aden, the church has been targeted by arsonists, vandalised and closed for the foreseeable future. The metal gates surrounding Saint Francis of Assisi Church in the Tawahi neighbourhood of Aden are locked, riddled with bullet holes, rusting. Scrawled on the church wall, in black paint, are the words “No entry” and “To you your religion and to me mine,” a reference to a Quranic verse.

Atop the church is a statue of Jesus, arms outstretched. The statue has no head.

“This was a practising church from the days of the British (protectorate) and even before — for 140, 150 years,” said Mohammed Seif, a long-time resident of Tawahi.

“People were praying in here until the war of the Houthis,” he added, referring to the March 2015 rebel takeover of Aden. The pro-government alliance, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, drove them out months later.

“It’s stopped ever since. The church has been vandalised, robbed,” Seif added, before trailing off.

In 2015, assailants destroyed a church, which had been abandoned, in the Mualla district of Aden. The attack was never officially claimed.

In 2016, 16 people were killed in a Catholic retirement home in Aden. The dead included four nuns of the Missionaries of Charity, the congregation founded by Saint Teresa of Calcutta.

Father Tom Uzhunnalil, an Indian priest, was taken hostage and was released the following year.

Local authorities blamed the Islamic State for the attack.

For centuries, Yemen hosted minorities, including Ismaili, Bahai and Jewish communities. Christianity is believed to have arrived in southern Yemen in the 19th century, when missionaries — mainly but not exclusively from Britain — headed to what was then a British protectorate.

The Catholics arrived around 1880, said Father Lennie Connully of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia.

With the 1967 revolt of southern Yemen — then Marxist — against the British, the priests fled to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

“It all started in Yemen, therefore Yemen is very important to us,” said Connully, who heads the parish at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Dubai.

Yemen’s small Catholic community is mostly made up of foreigners, said Bishop Paul Hinder, head of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia.

“It is, unfortunately, a sad reality and we pray that peace be soon restored in Yemen, especially as people suffer from hunger and the famine is affecting millions of people,” Hinder said.

“Our services are at present suspended because of the war but there are still nuns, the sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who have been serving the people for several decades and continue their good work.”

The remaining two Catholic parishes in Yemen are in the two main front lines of the war: the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, home to the country’s most valuable port; and south-western Taiz, controlled by the government but surrounded by rebels.

Hodeidah was, for months, the main front in the Yemen war after government forces supported by Saudi Arabia and its allies launched an offensive to capture it in June. While the rebels and government alliance have agreed to a ceasefire, the truce is shaky at best.

The Sacred Heart Church of Hodeidah is hidden from view, the ground floor of a nondescript, three-storey building with shuttered white windows.

Issam, who requested his name be changed, has lived in the neighbourhood for 20 years. He said he has never heard prayer coming from the ground floor, which has been vacant for years.

While residents of Hodeidah said they had little knowledge of the hidden church, many had a message for Pope Francis.

“I just hope he sees the pictures of the victims and understands what life is like for Yemenis,” said Rima, 28. “I hope he prays for us. No one wants to end this war.”