Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People
People on the Move
N° 101 (Suppl.), August 2006
The Apostleship of the Sea
and THE Assistance to Muslim Seafarers
Deacon Ricardo Rodríguez-Martos
Apostleship of the Sea - Barcelona
I am going to deal with this topic from the practical perspective of meeting people of the sea of different cultures, nationalities and religions who come to the port looking for means to satisfy a series of personal needs towards well-being.
We will follow the scheme below:
1) Assistance to the seafarer in general and reflections on his cultural and religious characteristics
Starting from the parable of the “Good Samaritan”, traditionally considered as a clear model for any social pastoral activity, and concretely, in our case, for the Apostleship of the Sea, we can say that the work of the maritime pastoral care has to direct its efforts fundamentally to offer to the people of the sea the help and assistance required to cover their needs and to help them achieve a well-being that, as persons, they seek to attain. These services are basically equal for all seafarers and the differences would depend more on the diversity of situations, rather than in the characteristics of the different seafarers.
In regard to the spiritual assistance in particular, normally a centre of the Catholic Church, like the Apostleship of the Sea, can, in the first place, offer Catholic assistance and, in the second place, through relationship with communities of other Christian denominations, an ecumenical assistance. At this point I would ask the question of what type of spiritual assistance can be offered to people of other religions.
Concentrating now on the Catholic merchant seafarers, as a transient person, the Apostleship of the Sea usually attends to them spiritually through:
- Celebration of masses on board, particularly on special days or circumstances.
- Prayer on board and blessing of the ship.
- Individual assistance to any seafarer who asks for it.
- Offering material for catechesis, as well as the organization of religious celebrations in the centre, especially on Sundays and important feast days, like Christmas or Easter.
As for the assistance to seafarers of other Christian denominations, I must say, first of all, that in Barcelona, apart from the Apostleship of the Sea, there is no other denominational centre of assistance to seafarers.
Nevertheless, aware of the importance of the ecumenical dimension in maritime pastoral care, we keep regular contacts with the following communities: German Evangelical, British Anglican, Rumanian Orthodox and Russian Orthodox. With them we periodically organize ecumenical celebrations. When there is a ship that is going to be in port for several days and the majority of the crew members are of one of the aforementioned denominations, we organize a visit on board this ship by a representative of the corresponding community.
Another way of collaborating is by supplying books for reading, mainly novels, in different languages, which we distribute among the ships. As for specific requests for non Catholic religious assistance, this has been requested only on a few occasions, and always by the Orthodox crews.
With regards to other religions, the only request that I remember was that of a seafarer who asked us for the location of the Church of Scientology.
This lack of calls might be explained by the fact that we are Christians and a seafarer who is, for example, a Hindu or a Muslim, will not easily come to us looking for religious assistance.
Nevertheless, concentrating on Muslim seafarers, this can also be explained by the fact that they can fulfil their religious obligations by doing their daily prayer, observing the sawn or siyam (temporary abstinence during the month of Ramadan) and with the rites of purification and food prescription.
On certain occasions, the Apostleship of the Sea of Barcelona has offered to put Muslim seafarers in contact with some mosques and, although they have been grateful for the offer, they have always declined it.
2. Estimated number of Muslim merchant seafarers worldwide.
Though it is approximate, the degree of Muslim presence among merchant seafarers is interesting to know.
To be able to establish approximately how many Muslim merchant seafarers are in the world at present, first, I consulted the study "Manpower update" of 2005 undertaken by BIMCO/ISF, which provides us with a worldwide estimate of the number of merchant seafarers, by country of origin. Then, I consulted the data given by the "Crítica" magazine (n º 911) of January, 2003, as well as by the web page http://go.hrw.com/atlas/span_htm  to calculate the percentage of Muslim population that is approximately present in the countries from which seafarers originate.
The following table does not include countries with a Muslim population lower than 3%.
Estimated total number of seafarers among all the countries of the world : 1,187,491
Theoretically estimated number of Muslim seafarers: 213,995
In conclusion, we can approximately estimate that Muslim seafarers represent 18% of the merchant seafarers of the whole world.
3. Estimated number of Muslim merchant seafarers in the port of Barcelona
Muslim seafarers hosted at the Stella Maris residence in 2005
Ships with flag of Islamic majority countries, visited during the year 2005
This means that 124 ships under the flag of Islamic majority countries were visited. In addition, crew members registered from these countries were on board 105 ships of different flags. This means that of the 1474 ships visited, 229 were crew members of the aforementioned countries, which means 15.5%. This percentage is not far from the 18% estimated to be the presence of Muslim seafarers in the worldwide merchant fleet.
As for the Muslim seafarers that we have met in our centre, apart from the 17 that have remained in our residence, we can estimate that those who visited us throughout the year 2005 were approximately 400.
4. Experience in dealing directly with Muslim seafarers
As has already been said, the seafarer comes to the Stella Maris, or to any other similar centre, looking for a warm welcome, various services or a helping hand. Sometimes this takes place in an extremely difficult situation, like for example: abandonment of ship, ill-treatment and unfair dismissal. In all these cases, being Muslim or Christian is indifferent.
With all of this, we can somehow make a specific analysis of our relationship with the Muslim seafarers who pass through the port of Barcelona, distinguishing between the following groups:
- Muslim seafarers on board ships with multinational crews, therefore mixed with people of other religions.
- Muslim seafarers on board ships under Muslim country flag and therefore Muslim crew, from the captain down to the cook.
- Muslim fishermen, mainly Moroccans, who live in Barcelona.
In the first case, it usually involves ships under flags of convenience, on board of which we find seafarers from Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, etc., together with seafarers from other countries of the world. The Apostleship of the Sea visitors are usually welcomed on board in a friendly and caring manner. The Muslim crew members of the ships come to our centre and take part in any activity and, if they need it, they request help without having any problem.
In the second group, we can either meet with ships that welcome and appreciate our visit, as well as ships that simply reject us. This normally depends on the captain. Sometimes it also happens that we are welcomed on board, but then our services are declined.
In the third group we mainly meet Moroccans who work for the fishing fleet off the coast of Barcelona. Some of them live as any other citizens would and some, without a home or family, reside in the Stella Maris centre, as any other seafarer would without asking any special request.
During the past years in Barcelona we have felt the need to establish a relationship with some Muslim community, with the intention of being able to offer a better service to the Muslim seafarers and, at the same time, to promote a spirit of interreligious dialogue and respect.
In this respect, approximately 15 years ago, taking advantage of the presence of a large group of Turkish and Moroccan Muslim seafarers in our centre, we wanted to organize a day of interreligious prayer, inviting the imam of a mosque in Barcelona, with whom we had contacted a little earlier. The imam agreed to come, but he stated that Christians and Muslims could not say any prayer together, therefore we suggested a silent prayer, which he accepted. Later we invited him as an observer to the Mediterranean Conference of the ICMA (International Christian Maritime Association), which took place in Barcelona in 1991, in which one of the topics discussed was the possibility of an interreligious prayer. He agreed to come, but at the last minute the imam excused himself and we lost contact with him.
In the following years we were in contact with another mosque in Barcelona, but the response was just polite but not cooperative.
Recently, nevertheless, we have begun communicating with the Islamic Council of Barcelona, which is open minded, and, though wary, has shown interest in collaborating with the Apostleship of the Sea for the assistance of Muslim seafarers, fundamentally on the basis of offering information in our centre about the headquarters and the activities of the aforementioned Islamic Council, as well as the availability of some copies of the Koran and of various material for prayer.
Evidently, this type of specific spiritual assistance for Muslim seafarers offered by our centre will consist in serving as an intermediary between these seafarers and the local Muslim community.
Nevertheless there is another type of pastoral activity, of spiritual assistance based on the mere exercise of charity which can spiritually unite people of any creed or culture. It is that experience that makes us feel as brothers.
We have experienced this, for example, in situations where we had Muslim seafarers abandoned in the port, whom we helped continually, offering them friendship and support, establishing with them a relationship of affection expressed in a strong handshake, a pat on the back or sometimes in an embrace. I remember a Muslim Pakistani officer who was going through a very difficult moment in his life and who after a long conversation said to me "Father, pray for me" and I answered him: "I will … and you should also pray for me".
We have also had experiences in which a group of seafarers, among whom were some Muslims, attended one of our activities which included the celebration of the mass. In these cases, on the majority, mainly they participated respectfully. When we came to the moment of the prayers, we prayed publicly for "our Muslim brothers" and we invited them to join the prayer to a God who loves us all. The sign of the peace was well participated. At the end of the mass it is quite common for them to show gratefulness for the welcome.
I believe that in maritime pastoral care, difference in belief or religion is not usually an obstacle, since the people of the sea, in their condition, immediately respond to a warm welcome.
5. Final reflections
We can ask ourselves this question: Is it necessary to develop a special pastoral care for Muslim seafarers?
We should begin by highlighting that among seafarers, the Muslims are usually those who give more importance to religious practice. According to the information we have, many of them get together in groups on board the ship to do their prayers. Even in ships with multinational crews, sometimes I see cabins transformed into a place of prayer for the Muslims, who were asking the captain every day for information on the direction of Mecca.
Nevertheless, upon arrival at the port these seafarers will rarely look for local spiritual assistance as it has already been said that:
On one hand, the centres of assistance for seafarers are Christian, or lay, but never Muslim and, as a consequence, it is unlikely that a Muslim seafarer will come to our centre looking for religious assistance.
On the other hand, the possibility of contacting a mosque is undermined by the lack of time, lack of local knowledge and also because to fulfil their religious daily obligations, it is not indispensable.
Nevertheless, the fact that these seafarers do not ask for this because of the aforementioned reasons should not be interpreted to mean that they would not need it.
There is ample bibliography, from the Second Vatican Council, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, from John Paul II, as well as a multitude of other documents from Catholic bishops based in Islamic countries and presentations given in international conferences, etc., that can enlighten us on the relationship with Islam.
I will only mention two things:
The Instruction “Dialogue and Proclamation” of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (1991) affirms that Interreligious Dialogue means "all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individualsand communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment, in obedience to truth and respect for freedom" and also that due to "the action of the Spirit, the inchoate reality of this Kingdom can be found also beyond the confines of the Church, and She must recognize it and value it”.
Msgr. Antonio Peteiro’s conference on "Images of God and Interreligious Dialogue” (Church of Tangier 24.1990, 65-71) gives a few guidelines for interreligious dialogue and cohabitation:
The documents that refer to the interreligious dialogue are, nevertheless, basically conceived from the perspective of dialogue and mutual understanding between Christian and Muslim communities.
With regards to the Apostleship of the Sea, we face a slightly different situation. Although there could be a "face to face" dialogue between people of different religions, we do not exactly have two communities relating between themselves, but rather a Christian community that welcomes some Muslims who are far from their homes and their religious communities of origin. They profess a religion that is different from that of the people who welcome them, but for their well-being, they may need spiritual nourishment that the receiving community cannot offer them initially.
What, then, is the evangelizing mission of the Apostleship of the Sea?
According to my modest opinion, once the own religious identity is safeguarded, which is well known in the case of the Apostleship of the Sea, the mission is to offer every person what he/she needs from all aspects of his humanity, in order to have a feeling of well-being.
It is evident that it would be inappropriate to want to attract them to Christianity, since they would feel annoyance in a place that tries to be “a home away from home" for every seafarer.
It is also evident that if all the documents on religious dialogue state that we must respect each other’s religious identity, then we must do it.
In these cases, must we limit ourselves to avoiding any religious reference, or should we, from our Christian identity, sometimes offer our Muslim brother the possibility to obtain the spiritual aid that he may need?
I understand that the latter is the proper attitude of pastoral activity which, far from proselytizing, tries to serve the seafarer as a human being, in his whole dimension, and which, in this concrete case, may consist in being a vehicle of access to the assistance that he may need.
The Muslim seafarer will find God through prayer and in the practice of the teachings that he has received. I approach him as a Christian and I offer to help him find, in the port, the necessary elements to be a good Muslim.
He a Muslim, I a Christian: God will do the rest.
 BIMCO (Baltic and International Maritime Council)/ISF (International Shipping Federation) “Manpower update”, Warwick Institute for Employment Research. Coventry. Great Britain. December 2005.
 “Crítica” Magazine (nº 911) Madrid. January 2003. Pp. 15 to 19.
 Web page: http://go.hrw.com/atlas/span_htm (consult 27.03.2006)
 Memoir of the Apostleship of the Sea of Barcelona 2005.
 Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Instruction “Dialogue and Proclamation”on the proclamation of the Gospel and interreligious dialogue(1991)
 Bulletin of the Episcopal Commission on Interconfessional Relations.“Diálogo Interreligioso” Magazine, no. 56 – Spanish Episcopal Conference.Madrid. Sept.-Dec. 1999