VATICAN CITY – The consecration of the Kingdom of Bahrain’s first cathedral marks the latest advance in religious tolerance in the tightly-controlled Islamic majority region, although the number of churches in the Arab nation continues to be small, despite a booming Catholic immigrant population.
On December 10, Cardinal Luis Tagle, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, consecrated the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia in Awali, in central Bahrain, describing the new church as “a living sign of God’s concern for his flock. . “
A day earlier, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain inaugurated the 95,000 square foot arch-shaped cathedral, which has a capacity of 2,300 seats. The king donated the land to the church in 2013 and the decision to build the church was taken on February 11 of the same year – the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Construction began in 2018.
The new cathedral is expected to be in high demand: Bahrain is home to around 80,000 Catholics, many of whom are immigrant workers from Asia, especially the Philippines and India. But like many other Gulf countries, they suffer from a severe shortage of churches.
Until now, Bahrain had only two parishes: Sacré-Cœur in Manama, the capital of the kingdom, which is the oldest church in the region (opened in 1940), and a much smaller “annex church” in Our -Lady of the Visitation in Awali, 12 kilometers from Manama.
These two churches were “insufficient to meet the needs of the Catholic population,” Archbishop Paul Hinder, who administers the churches in Bahrain, told the Register. “Therefore, for Catholics in Bahrain, the new church will be welcome. ”
Bishop Hinder, a 79-year-old Swiss Capuchin, takes care of the faithful throughout the Arabian Peninsula. As the Apostolic Vicar of South Arabia based in Abu Dhabi, his flock resides in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Yemen. But since last year, he has taken on the responsibility of serving the faithful in northern Arabia as well (Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia), temporarily administering the vast territory after the former apostolic vicar, Bishop Camillo Ballin. , a Comboni missionary of Italian origin. , who died last year at the age of 75.
Under the leadership of Bishop Ballin, Bahrain rose to prominence after the transfer of the seat of the Vicariate of Kuwait in 2012. Bishop Ballin, who became a Bahraini citizen, felt that the kingdom would be a better “base for from which to reach more effectively the Catholics within the other countries of the vicariate ”, according to Mgr Hinder.
In his address During the inauguration of the cathedral, Bishop Hinder noted how Bahrain became the “center of pastoral care for Catholics residing on the shores of the Persian Gulf”, replacing Aden, the Yemeni capital, in the first half of the 20th century. “This was only possible thanks to the openness of the ruler of Bahrain,” said Bishop Hinder.
Converts Are Always Shunned
Bahrain’s constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and Sharia (Islamic law) as the main source of legislation. As in the rest of the Gulf, converts from Islam to Christianity or other religious groups are not well tolerated by society and facial pressure family members, community leaders and government officials. Evangelization of Muslims is also illegal.
But Bahrain has relatively more freedoms than other nations in the region. According to the latest US Department of State “Report on International Religious Freedom”, The country“ guarantees freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship and the freedom to perform religious rites ”.
And like much of the Arab world, considerable efforts have been made in recent years to make Bahraini society more tolerant and push for a more liberal Islam. Faced with the prospect of drastically declining oil revenues as governments move away from fossil fuels, Gulf states have been forced to reassess their religious, political and economic systems, but will that mean much? more churches and more freedom for Muslims to convert to the faith remains to be seen, observers say.
“The test of whether Bahraini rulers are stepping forward or just trying to make the country more attractive for foreign investment will come when we see whether or not they allow native Bahrainis, including Muslims who are interested in the country. Christianity, to attend. », Robert Spencer, director of the organization Jihad Watch, a group that monitors Islamic extremism, told the Registry.
“A church for expatriate Catholics from the Philippines and India is a kind gesture, but it has no greater significance unless native Christians and converts to the faith are allowed in,” a- he declared.
Bishop Hinder sees the new cathedral as “a strong message of tolerance and openness” and noted various achievements which paved the way for the new cathedral, in particular the visit of the King of Bahrain to Pope Francis in 2014, when the king invited Francis to visit the country.
“This special invitation marked the start of a new shift in the relationship between followers of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and the Catholic Church,” Bishop Hinder said.
He also noted the visit of the Holy Father to the United Arab Emirates in 2019, his signing there of his “”Document “human fraternity” with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, and similar subsequent visits to Morocco and Iraq.
“The freedom to practice one’s faith and to profess it in the public domain is a fundamental human right,” said Bishop Hinder. “In the various Islamic countries of the Gulf, this fundamental right is increasingly recognized”, he observed, adding that the Gulf States “are expressing themselves more on the importance of tolerance and on the way in which it is practiced within their societies ”.
By building this new cathedral, he also believes that “this gesture will have an impact on neighboring countries”.
Saudi Arabia’s turn?
This week a new church was consecrated – the first in the Al Dhafra region of the United Arab Emirates, about 150 miles west of Abu Dhabi. The Church of Saint John the Baptist in Ruwais was built on land donated by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and his first mass was celebrated on December 17.
But will such initiatives ever extend to Saudi Arabia? A long-standing question has been whether the Islamic kingdom, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad who officially prohibits the practice of Christianity anywhere in its territory (Catholic liturgies are held in secret), will eventually relax its restrictions to allow at least one church to be built in the country.
Spencer was more pessimistic about progress regarding the Saudi kingdom.
“It is extremely unlikely that there will ever be a church built in Saudi Arabia, as there is a tradition in which the Prophet of Islam Muhammad is portrayed as saying that he will expel all Jews and Christians from the peninsula Arabic, ”he said.
“The Saudi regime takes this very seriously; this is the root of their refusal to allow any non-Muslim religious practice. The Saudis are unlikely to ever break the ban attributed to Muhammad, as they would likely be overthrown if they did. “
However, Bishop Hinder noted various recent initiatives that have offered hope: King Abdullah’s historic visit to Pope Benedict in 2007 (the first visit of this type of a Saudi monarch) then visits to the kingdom of Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai in 2017 and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran in 2018.
“Such visits that take the path of dialogue and encounter help cultivate an increased understanding of the other,” said Bishop Hinder. “I believe that these recent encounters, coupled with an increasingly tolerant attitude, which can also be made worse by signs of welcome like the papal visit to the region and the construction of the new cathedral, hold promise for the future. “