– Among those calling for a ceasefire in the disastrous Yemen conflict is Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar for Southern Arabia. Though the path out of war is difficult and requires the warring parties to overcome deep mistrust, both Christians and Muslims are praying for peace and justice.
“The war in Yemen is striking the whole population of the country. Its reasons are so complicated that possibly nobody knows fully what is going on,” Hinder, speaking from Abu Dhabi, told CNA Oct. 19.
“The hope that the intervention in 2015 would last only for a few weeks and lead back to normality was illusion,” he said. “In fact, we have now a war that has already lasted more than three years and an end is not in sight.”
Hinder’s vicariate is responsible for Catholics in Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. His predecessors were based in Yemen’s port city of Aden until the late 1960s, when the vicariate headquarters moved to Abu Dhabi.
Yemen has a long history of internal conflicts and wars, he said. The latest conflict began when the Shiite Muslim Houthi tribe took control of a key territory and chased the president from the capital city. Saudi Arabia and some Arab allies intervened on behalf of the opposing faction.
At least 6,500 civilians have been killed in Yemen’s three-year conflict, as have over 10,000 combatants. More than 2 million people have been displaced from their homes. The number of people facing pre-famine conditions could reach 14 million, the U.N. estimated.
Yemen’s coastal city Hodeidah is a key port of entry for U.N. and other humanitarian aid. The city is now the center of a three-year-old conflict between Arab allies backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Mass starvation in Yemen is a possible threat as a military engagement over the major port city of Hodeidah could block food and other humanitarian aid for millions of people.
Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, has said that starvation is a weapon of war and the famine is “wholly man-made.”
“Mass starvation is a deadly byproduct of actions taken by warring parties and the Western nations propping them up,” Egeland said in an Oct. 15 statement.
Hinder reflected on paths out of the war.
“I do not think that anybody has the solution in this tricky situation,” he said. “First of all, there should be a sustainable ceasefire which allows to bring humanitarian aid into the country. Between the tribes, steps of mutual trust-building have to be undertaken, possibly with the help of neutral outsiders.”
“The negotiations about the constitution of the country with a fair distribution of power and resources have to be renewed. Before the present war there had been some hope in this direction,” he said. “The difficult question is how the mistrust can be overcome and constructive negotiations can restart. It will not be easy because the internal tensions are somehow perennial.”
Regional and world powers have themselves “compromised,” and parties to the conflict will not easily accept them as “trustworthy peacemakers,” the bishop added.
“On the other hand, we should not underestimate the power of traditional conflict management among the Arabic tribes,” said Hinder.
“Finally, as a believer I count on the power of prayer. There are not only Christians but also a lot of Muslims praying that peace and justice be given by the power of God,” he said. “However, it requires faith and humility, virtues very often forgotten when violence prevails.”
The bishop also reflected on the seeming lack of priority the world places upon the war.
“Sometimes we could even get the impression that the conflict is put to silence intentionally,” he said. “Why? I think that the warring parties have themselves an interest that the world opinion be not too attentive to the conflict. The fact that journalists are not given permissions to enter the country is not only due to the care for their security!”
U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia government’s policies may be another reason for “not looking into the dirty aspects of the war.” There are also economic winners in the war, he said, citing “those who are trading with arms and those who are already looking towards the future when they can make business in the reconstruction of the destroyed country.”
Hinder did not discuss American arms supply to the Saudi coalition specifically.
The U.S. government is providing some forms of military support to Saudi Arabian forces in the conflict and U.S.-supplied weapons have been traced to incidents that have killed civilians. An Aug. 9 aerial bombing of a school bus killed dozens of children with a bomb manufactured by U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin, CNN said.
“The consequences of the war are disastrous for most of the people, although there are parts of the country living in relative peace and security. Besides the thousands of casualties among the civil populations, the people face the problem of sickness (cholera), malnutrition and even starving especially among the children.”
Education infrastructure like schools and health infrastructure like hospitals have been damaged or destroyed.
“A regular life has become difficult if not impossible for many people. The country is also faced with the problem of internally displaced people who escaped from the most dangerous regions,” he said. “To flee the country is for most of the people impossible.”
Christians returned to Yemen in the mid-19th century. There are over 900,000 Catholics across the three countries of Hinder’s vicariate. Their combined population is about 43 million, the vicariate’s website says. These Catholics have only 16 parishes, 18 diocesan priests, and 49 religious priests.
“Most Catholics do not even know that there are Christians in Yemen although they are a tiny minority,” the bishop said.