RIYADH – “Ricky,”* a Filipino waiter who has been working here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for 21 years, lights candles in honor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help every Wednesday.
He has a special devotion to the popular title of the Virgin Mary, whom Catholics believe offers prompt assistance to those who pray to her.
“All your problems will be solved if you seek her help. Nothing is impossible,” Ricky said.
But Ricky has to keep his devotion in private, knowing very well that non-Muslims like him cannot display their religious beliefs in this kingdom, the birthplace of Islam.
“They have the right (to impose that law). That is their culture. But we also have the right to practice privately,” he said.
Ricky is one of the Filipino Catholics here who privately observe the Holy Week, a religious event that commemorates the passion and death of Jesus Christ.
Unlike their fellow Catholics back home who are used to elaborate rituals and pageantry, Filipinos here reflect on the life of Christ through small-group Masses and prayers in private residences.
“We do not have churches here, so they exercise their faith in their own way,” Consul General to Riyadh Iric Arribas said in an interview.
“The practice of one's faith depends on the person himself…. Religion is something that is in one’s heart. You do not need to go to a church or any place that we are used to visiting when we are in the Philippines,” he added.
Article 1 of Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law states that the kingdom is a “sovereign Arab Islamic state” while the Muslim scripture Holy Qur’an and the prophet Muhammad’s traditions are its constitution.
Filipinos interviewed for this article said non-Muslims are not being barred from practicing their faith as long as they do so in private.
Arribas said that since he assumed his post in 2015, he has not heard of any Filipino arrested or jailed for practicing a religion other than Islam.
Ricky claims to be a practicing Catholic although he often attends the services of a Born Again Christian sect because he cannot find any priest who can fulfill his spiritual needs. Born Again Christians reject several key doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church, including the papacy and the use of religious images.
“Pagdating natin sa itaas, isa lang naman ang Diyos. (Once you reach heaven, there is only one God),” Ricky said.
“There are no Catholic priests here. But there is a pastor who heads a church, a Born Again Christian… (But) I remain faithful (to Catholicism).”
Unknown to Ricky, there is a Filipino community here in Riyadh that quietly observes long-cherished Catholic traditions.
“Samboy,” who has been working here since 1992, is a member of Couples for Christ, a Catholic group that he claims has about 3,000 members. He said three priests take care of the spiritual needs of the community.
Samboy said community members hold Masses in private residences but they see to it that they do not stay in one area. Masses are also held in some foreign embassies.
“There are houses identified and we determine who goes to what house,” Samboy said, adding that each Mass is usually attended by about 80 people.
“There is freedom but you should not create noise unlike some of our brothers (from other religious groups). Their praise and worship events usually create noise.”
Holy Week plans
Samboy said members of their community also observe Holy Week practices like Stations of the Cross and the Seven Last Words. He said they also had ashes put on their foreheads last Ash Wednesday but had to immediately remove them after the Mass.
Ricky, who is not aware of the existence of Samboy's community, plans to pray privately in his room and to fast on Good Friday.
Samboy admitted that Catholics here still have work to do to reach out to fellow Filipinos who are looking for people who share their faith. Such task, Samboy believes, is important because faith in God allows Filipinos here to carry on.
“If you have faith, you will overcome whatever problem or stress you have,” he added.
* Some names have been changed