In Aden, a Ghost of Religious Diversity Haunts Empty Churches

Eslah Saleh
The churches and temples in Aden points to a history of diversity and tolerance between religons in this coastal city. Though these establishments have been closed, their footprints remain observed in the streets of the city and in the memories of its residents
Ras Marbat christ church, Aden © Mahmoud Al-Filastini / Arabia Felix Magazine

The first churches in Yemen were built centuries ago following the arrival of the evangelist Theophilus, who was sent by the Roman Emperor Constantine II to Yemen in 354 CE.

According to research by Mohammed al-Mahfali and Eman Homaid, Theophilus managed to convert several Arab princes to Christianity, a move that initiated the spread of the religion in Yemen. In an article published by the INSAF Center for Defending Freedoms & Minorities, the authors wrote: 

“(Theophilus) was also able to establish churches in Aden, Raydan (Dhofar) — the capital of the Himyarites at the time — and a third in Hormuz.” 

كنيسة رأس مربط في عدن. © محمود الفلسطيني | مجلة العربية السعيدة

Ras Marbat christ church, Aden
© Mahmoud Al-Filastini / Arabia Felix Magazine

Centuries later, nearly 130 years of British occupation in South Yemen saw the construction of 12 churches in Aden to carry out missionary activities and provide a house of worship to British soldiers and foreign visitors. An additional church was built nearly 140 kilometres to the north.

Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy were subsequently represented in Aden’s churches, said Mansour Youssef Khan, 50, who heads Ras Marbat Christ Church. The only church to remain open, it was restored by external donations in 1995 and now houses an ophthalmology clinic that provides health services to all residents of the area, regardless of faith.

The Church of St. Joseph in Crater district, the oldest church in Aden, was founded in 1850. Formerly known as the Roman Catholic Mission School for Girls, it was headed by the chief nun of the Roman Catholic Mission. By 1868, many British nuns had come to Aden to study at this school.

The St. Mary Garrison Church in Crater, built a year earlier, was converted to the headquarters of South Yemen state legislative council beginning in the 1950s. The Church of Hafun was established in 1960, followed by the Church of St. Andrews near Aden airport.

Adel Shamsan, 46, an entrepreneur born to one of the oldest families in Aden’s Tawahi district, said churches continued to serve as houses of worship until 2011, when they were attacked and subsequently closed one at a time.

According to Mansour Yousef Khan, a long-standing library of Christian books in Aden was looted during the last war.

Aden’s religious landscape also hosted at least ten Hindu and Jain temples, including the Sri Jain Swetamber temple, built in 1882; the Shankar Hanuman Temple, which dates back to the 19th century; and the Sri Hengraj Mataji Mandi temple, built in the 1990s. Dr Awsaf Yousaf Saeed, India’s former Ambassador to Yemen and current Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says most of these structures have either been demolished or altered so they are no longer recognisable, according to a paper entitled “Heritage of Hindu Temples in Aden,” published in 2011.

Home to Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Bahá’ís, Yemen remained unique in its religious diversity for decades. In Aden, people of all these faiths enjoyed complete freedom of worship. That changed in 2011, when Christians stopped attending church.

“If this turbulent security situation continues in the city, the manifestations of Aden’s religious coexistence will disappear,” said Yousef Khan.

But Adel Shamsan holds out hope. “I think Aden will remain a symbol of coexistence and tolerance,” he said, “without further disappearance of its remaining religious symbols.” 

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