BISHOP PAUL HINDER, HEAD OF THE CHURCH IN NORTH ARABIA, says that on his next visit to Bahrain, the Pope will be welcomed by a festive Catholic community made up mainly of migrant workers.
Pope Francis visits Bahrain to be with the local Christian population, but the main purpose of his trip is to further develop interreligious dialogue with the Muslim world, according to Bishop Paul Hinder, the current Apostolic Administrator for Arabia of the North and expert in interreligious problems
During an online conference organized by Aid to the Church in Need (AED), the Swiss-born bishop stressed that this visit, during which Pope Francis will participate in the “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue”, should be seen as a continuation of the Holy Father’s earlier trips to Muslim-majority countries. “The Pope is not inventing the wheel here, there is continuity in this policy since his previous trip to Abu Dhabi. He has already visited several Muslim countries, always with the same objective: to find a platform where, without compromising our beliefs, we can form positive constructive communities to build the future and help save the world,” says the Capuchin Bishop.
What Christians and Muslims both want, says the Apostolic Administrator of the Vicariate of the Catholic Church in North Arabia, is frank conversation that respects differences. “Dialogue at the intellectual or theological level is not easy, because it is difficult to find a common language. How do we move forward and create a base, without giving up our identity?
“No one is interested in a half-Muslim, half-Christian synthesis. We want to stay true to our traditions, but we can do more to answer vital questions that affect all of humanity. And we do this as believers in one God, the creator of heaven and earth, to whom we are accountable whether we are Muslims or Christians.
While emphasizing that the final results “of course do not depend on us, but on God”, the bishop believes that “if the two great monotheistic religions do not manage to agree, then the world is in danger. We should be part of the solution and not part of the problems that affect many parts of the world. The pope never tires of building bridges where people have stopped talking to each other.
In the complex reality that is the Gulf region, Bahrain occupies a special place. With a predominantly Shiite population, but a Sunni royal family, Muslims make up 70% of the population. However, there are large communities of other religions, with 14% Christians and around 10% Hindus, mostly immigrants who do not have citizenship.
For these reasons, Bahrain is used to differences between communities and has invested heavily in promoting understanding. This is something Pope Francis should encourage. “He will probably ask the king to remain a bridge builder in the region, because religiously and ideologically Bahrain lies between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two great powers in the Middle East, and he can play a special role. as builders of bridges, and I expect the Pope to encourage them to remain faithful to this role.
Pope Francis will also meet with the Catholic community in Bahrain, and many faithful are expected to come from neighboring countries. Although there is a very small indigenous Christian community, the vast majority of the 80,000 Catholics on this island kingdom are migrant workers from countries such as India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The Pope should expect to meet an enthusiastic crowd, says Bishop Paul Hinder. “The highlight will be the closing Mass at the National Stadium, because knowing our people, it will be a very festive Mass. About 28,000 people will fill the stadium, including at least 2,000 from Saudi Arabia.”
Although neighboring Saudi Arabia is known worldwide for its lack of religious freedom, this does not apply to the archipelago of Bahrain, where different Christian denominations are allowed to build their own churches and the king has even offered land to build Our Lady of Arabia. , the largest cathedral in the Gulf region, erected in part with the support of ACN benefactors.
Christians make use of this freedom, the bishop said. “Part of the beauty of the ministry there is dealing with active Christians. No need to beg them to come to mass, our main problem is the lack of space. It gives us satisfaction and joy. I have been strengthened in my own faith by the faithful who have supported me all these years,” says the Bishop, who has worked in the area for more than 18 years.
However, there are difficulties. “Our people are generally not citizens, which means that when they lose their jobs, they have to leave the country. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs during Covid, and it looks like that process could continue, so there’s insecurity, because they still have families dependent on them, either in the Gulf, or in their country of origin. Separated families are also a challenge for pastoral work.
Although the Gulf countries are known for their immense wealth, this does not mean that ordinary workers, or churches, live in comfort. Labor exploitation and abuse are endemic in the region. “The structures of the Church, compared to other countries, are relatively poor. But there is solidarity in the Church, the poor are often generous as they can, and with the number of faithful, the contribution is good, even if it is not sufficient. Most of the construction of churches in the vicariate was financed by the people. I am grateful to the people, because they are doing what they can,” says the Swiss bishop.
In these countries, official support is very rare or non-existent, which is why the bishop stresses the importance of the help received from ACN during his mandate, especially in the most problematic countries. “In Yemen, I received help from ACN when things could be done, before the civil war, and I told my successor that as soon as it is possible to do something there again , you will have to ask for help, and it will be found with ACN. I remember being told to approach the foundation whenever I needed it, and I appreciate that.
Pope Francis will be in Bahrain from November 3-6. During the trip, he will again meet the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and attend an ecumenical prayer service for peace with Christian leaders. Mass with the Catholic community will take place on November 5.