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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 101 (Suppl.), August 2006



Migration Towards Islamic Nations. An Aos Perspective



Rev. Fr. Xavier PINTO, C.Ss.R.

AOS Coordinator a.i. Gulf States



Your smiling in your brothers’ face is charity. 

Your exhorting mankind to virtuous deeds is charity.

Your prohibiting the forbidden is charity. 

Your showing men the road, in the land in which they lose it, is charity

- Prophet Muhammad.


I can’t but speak as a person coming from India, a country in which the majority of people are of a religion other than Christianity and Islam. In other words, in my own country I belong to a “minority” religion. In India only 2% of the over 1,000 million people are Christian. Muslims account for 6% and yet are also in the “minority” category. However, in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Muslims are a majority.

As Apostleship of the Sea “ad interim” coordinator for the Gulf States, I have had the opportunity to use and put into effect some of my own experiences, in my seminary days, with Muslim businessmen in the city of Bangalore, India. I dabbled with leather and mastered the art of shoe-making from my Muslim friends. It was they who first informed me that the total population of Muslims living in large pockets in five different parts[1]in India is more than those in Pakistan.

It was then that I discovered that actually they think highly of Christianity. I was led to see that many passages in the Quoran are akin to our Bible, that they share names like Yusuf (Joseph), Fatima, Yakub (Jacob), Ismail, etc. They, in fact, are our friends; especially since we too belong to the “minority” as they do. Their Quoran calls Jesus a Word from God, a Messiah, a Prophet, Divine Son of God and Saviour. For the average Muslim, Jesus is an example of sanctity and piety and someone who embodied true Islam.[2]

It is this starting point which makes me comfortable to interact with Muslims and work together with them, never to be threatened by their presence but to keep alive the need of the spirit of dialogue, to work together towards better times for seafarers. 

Limited AOS Experience in Islamic Majority Nations

Work of the AOS began in the Gulf Region by default! I passed through the Gulf each time I came to Rome in the past five years. I stayed with my relations in Dubai and “took a break” for three to four days en-route back to India. This was from the year 2001. This is why in the map I have downloaded only the Middle East is seen. This does not discount what I write concerning other South Asian Seafarers - on the move, port based, or dhow based; and Fishermentraditional /ancestral or fish workers who have been living and moving in other Islamic Nations. Livelihood is their main concern.[3]

The era and Waves of Migration

This brings me to the era of migration and the different times when “waves” of people traversed to the Gulf and other countries in search of their livelihood away from South Asian countries and towards Islamic nations.[4][5][6][7]

For a clear picture of what I present in this paper in relation to the AOS, it is important to have the following understanding of terms and terminology:

Sailors (S): Seafarers on Cargo, Ocean and Cruise liners: those from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, those employed by ships flying flags of the Islamic Nations.

Port Based Sailors (PBS): For instance, those who ply the crafts with provisions and personnel to and from anchorage, and reside at port (in designated places) on their small boats for all the time of their contracts.[8]

Dhow based Seamen (DBS): For instance, there are more than 150 dhows in the river-harbour at Dubai at any given time. These load and unload manually and by head load several tons of perishables, consumables and cargo to and from the various ports in the Gulf Countries – going far up north to Kuwait, and south bound to Qatar, and beyond to Yemen.

Fishermen (F): Actual fishermen, by trade, tradition and ancestry, from any of the above countries, who are in the Gulf and other Muslim nations doing business.

Fish-workers (FW): Other workers who, because of livelihood, work in fish markets or on shore dealing with fish and products of the ocean.[9] 

From the point of view of the AOS and Migration towards Islamic Nations[10]it is worth noting that there have been large numbers of Indians alone in these countries: Kuwait 370,000, Bahrain 130,000, UAE (seven Emirates) 900,000, Saudi Arabia 1,500,000, Qatar 125,000, and Oman 340,000, but to name a few. Apart from these, Malaysia, and Indonesia too, have received a large number of South Asians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. These include generations of first wave migrants who went to work in the plantations in the 1800’s. These, however, can hardly be called migrants today! They have become part and parcel of the country they now live in.

In the Maritime World, it is believed that 70% of Seafarers are from the Philippines. The rest (30%) are vying for an increase in numbers: Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, in that order! 

Exposed to Unpredictable Circumstances

It has been the experience of most of the AOS Chaplains in the Region to encounter not only seafarers who venture into the ocean, but also to meet and help fishermen who have been employed or self-employed, in their own or in shared ownership crafts, in the Islamic nations.[11]

The following “unpredictables” for various categories are worth noting as the main concerns that the AOS would like to keep in mind in our pastoral outreach:

  • Exploitation- This takes on different forms: from the paucity of food and good drinking water to difficult conditions of sleeping and toilet. (S, PBS, DBS, F, FW)
  • Non-fulfillment of contract conditions- This is the most common complaint. This can become an economic disaster for the person, especially when his/her first salary goes in payment as a “commission” to the one who has placed him. (DBS, FW)
  • Death and disappearance- This is becoming increasingly common on board ships, especially in the ‘flags of convenience’ carriers; and sometimes in cruise liners of great repute! (S, F)
  • No compensation is paid for injury or deathvery easily; or it is made very, very difficult to get. (S, PBS, DBS, F, FW)
  • Abandoned Ship –In my experience over the past six years with the AOS, I have personally encountered three abandoned ships in India. All of them belonged to owners from Islamic-majority nations, irrespective of the flags they were flying.
  • The obtaining of legal resources and sometimes the complete lack of it puts seafarers in a situation of jeopardy. (S, F, FW)
  • Last but not least, Vulnerability to HIV aids is something that the seafarer is exposed to. Without fixing the boundaries of where and how this can happen, it is imperative that, in general, our seafarers be made aware of this growing threat to themselves and their relations, with their wives back home. (S, PBS)
  • We may also apply some of the following damning attributes to different persons in different categories, in different intensities: they are Uprooted, Unguided, Misguided, Lost & sometimes Anonymous.

Hope, Encouragement & Life 

Given these circumstances, it is encouraging to note that in two of the “Islamic-majority” countries,[12]both Bishops – Rev. Paul Hinder, ofm cap, in Abu Dhabi (Vicariate of Arabia) and Rev. Cammillo Ballin, Kuwait – are very positive and hopeful of the AOS and its importance in the area. Their diplomatic status gives us every opportunity to function within the realms of the law and do what is best for the AOS, knowing that whatever the Church does benefits the land where it resides.

The several hundreds of lay people, who are in the trade of shipping, administration, government offices and actual seafaring, have all shown a keen interest knowing that all of them have “come” into a nation/nations that affirm a “majority” not our own.

I am in touch with many of these, who alone - I am convinced - can really give the AOS a meaningful foothold in the area; without prejudice to their jobs and status, and the position of the official Church therein. These are the only people who can and have already been helping in various ways other migrants, who have come to these “Islamic-majority” nations. 

Keeping in mind the laws of the land and the facilities extended to the Church in these Islamic-majority countries, the AOS can safely do the pastoral outreach possible to Seafarers and PBS. This, for a start, would be easier than dabbling in the situations and “unpredictables” of DBS, F, and FW. Treading gently would also be needed, in the spirit of dialogue and ecumenism. Being “leaven in the dough” would be the best way to proceed. 


“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

Into that heaven of freedom my Father let my country awake”

- Rabindranath Tagore, noted Indian poet and Nobel Laureate.

* * * 

Questions as indicator guidelines for the participants to ask or discuss 

  1. What tools and methods would you further suggest to enhance the AOS in these “Islamic-majority” nations?
  2. What are your ideas of crisis-preparedness that may be conveyed to AOS heading “towards” major Islamic nations?
  3. What do you envisage as impending threats, if any, to the progress of the AOS in these countries?
  4. For any queries, assistance in crisis, requesting information regarding AOS in the South Asian and Gulf Regions, please write to (Fr. Xavier Pinto, C.Ss.R, Coordinator AOS). Please visit the AOS section at <> for other information and matters.


[1]These are believed to be Hyderabad, Ajmer, Thane, Mumbai, and New Delhi , by and large .
[2]Zepp Ira, The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; Islam, Pg 437
[3]See explanations of each in the section below, entitled “The Era and Waves of Migration”.
[4]First Wave (1900’s): to the plantations in the USA, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
[5]Second wave (1950’s): professionals, e.g., doctors, nurses to Europe, Canada and the USA.
[6]Third Wave (1980’s): exodus of skilled and semi-skilled workers to the Gulf Countries. 
[7]Fourth Wave (1990’s): women and undocumented workers. 
[8]In places/ports like Fujairah, in the UAE, this could turn into a special apostolate of the AOS. There is so much to do and so much to care for among the hundreds of mostly Filipino seamen who work in these circumstances. 
[9]In the market in one part of Dubai – Karama –, in June 2005, I interviewed briefly 25 of the 40 men working inside. Two questions were asked: (1) “Where do you come from?”= 18 said India, 4 said Bangladesh, 3 said Pakistan. (2) “You seem to be good in handling this fish, are you a fisherman by trade)”= 23 said No, 2 said Yes. 
[10]One must be aware that the Gulf Countries also like to be termed as Arabic Nations.
[11]It is a known practice that if at all the particular country makes it possible for ‘foreigners’ to have their own business or ventures then the share of ownership and profit is always in a 51-49% in favour of the native local resident. 
[12]Actually a total of eight countries – since the UAE alone has seven Emirates: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain.