“A church here in Aden? This is very dangerous. Aden is an in Islamic city and churches must not be here,” said Abdul-Rahman Al-Qudaimi, a visitor from Sana’a. “They must demolish it,” he declared, looking towards the Roman Catholic Church in Tawahi district. This quote is from a wonderful article in the Yemen Times on “Aden’s rich religious heritage”. It is not unusual, it was a common sentiment heard in Aden from North Yemenis who saw Aden’s openness as “dangerous” and thus put a lot of effort to dismantle its diversity.
Aden South Yemen was once a cosmopolitan city with diverse religious communities that lived and worshipped side by side until the mid 1990s.
Even though all religions did not fare well during the communist rule of South Yemen, the biggest impact on religious tolerance and diversity came after the unification of South Yemen with North Yemen.
On May 22, 1990 South Yemen and North Yemen united to create what is known today as the country of Yemen. North Yemen was a conservative Islamic society while South Yemen was a secular and open society. When you talk to southerners today they say the worst decision the south has ever made was to unite with North Yemen, because instead of moving the country forward, South Yemen regressed politically, economically — and most devastatingly — socially.
In the first four years of unity, the south preserved the ideals of a tolerant society, and the thriving Hindu and Christian communities continued to live in peace and practice their religion freely.
By the summer of 1994, Yemen unity had collapsed, and North Yemeni forces invaded and occupied South Yemen to implement ‘unity by force’.
The Hindu temples and churches that were destroyed and looted during the 1994 war are still in ruins today.
As North Yemen’s brutal grip on Aden expanded, Islamist ideology was imported to the south. The once vibrant commercial and diverse city became a poor, occupied city with a dwindling Christian and Hindu population. Four churches closed and left Aden between 1994 and 2014.
The few Christians left in Aden, especially the ones who grew up in the seventies and eighties, are very concerned about the changes that have taken place in the past twenty years.
Anisa, a Christian Adeni says, “besides the influx of Islamists who moved from the north to the south after unity, there is a new generation of southerners, who never experienced the openness of southern society and life in the south before unity. They do not know much about diversity and tolerance,” she adds. “Some have even been influenced by radical ideology, which pose danger not only to Christians but to Aden as a whole.”
More recently, the 2015 invasion of Aden by the North Yemeni Houthi rebels and their Saleh military allies has threatened the remaining churches in Aden. When the Houthis first occupied Aden they attacked and looted Christ Church in Tawahi. After the Houthi/Saleh forces were pushed out of Aden, there was a security vacuum and terrorists vandalized and burned Church of St Joseph in Tawahi, and then Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Mualla was blown up.
Besides religious services for the local Christian minority, the churches in Aden provide humanitarian and medical support for refugees and the local population.
Currently there are only two churches still open in Aden. Many in South Yemen are worried that if nothing is done to protect the last surviving churches, Aden’s diverse history, will be just that… history.