Bahrain, one of the Arab Muslim countries with full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel has set an excellent example of interfaith harmony. According to media report, the consecration of the first cathedral in the Kingdom of Bahrain 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 few, despite a burgeoning immigrant Catholic population.
On Dec. 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 care for his flock”.
A day earlier, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain inaugurated the 95,000-square-foot, ark-shaped cathedral, which has a seating capacity of 2,300. The king donated the land to the Church in 2013, and the decision to build the church there was begun on Feb. 11 that year — the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Construction began in 2018.
The new cathedral is expected to be much in demand: Bahrain is home to about 80,000 Catholics, many of whom are immigrant workers from Asia, particularly the Philippines and India. But like many other countries in the Gulf, they suffer from a severe shortage of churches.
Until now, Bahrain had just two parishes: Sacred Heart in Manama, the kingdom’s capital, which is the oldest church in the region (opened in 1940), and a much smaller “outstation church” of Our Lady of the Visitation in Awali, 12 miles away from Manama.
These two churches were “insufficient to meet the needs of the Catholic population,” Bishop Paul Hinder, who administers the churches in Bahrain, told the Register. “Therefore, for Catholics in Bahrain, the new church will be very welcome”.
Bishop Hinder, a 79-year-old Swiss Capuchin, tends to the faithful across the entire Arabian Peninsula. As vicar apostolic of Southern 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 responsibility for also serving the faithful in northern Arabia (Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia), temporarily administering the vast area after the former apostolic vicar, Bishop Camillo Ballin, an Italian-born Comboni missionary, died last year at the age of 75.
Under Bishop Ballin’s watch, Bahrain grew to prominence, after the vicariate’s seat was transferred there from Kuwait in 2012. Bishop Ballin, who became a Bahraini citizen, believed the kingdom would be a better “base from which to reach out more effectively to Catholics within the other countries in the vicariate,” according to Bishop Hinder.
In his address at the cathedral’s inauguration, Bishop Hinder noted how Bahrain became the “hub for the pastoral care of the Catholics residing on the shores of the Arabian Gulf,” replacing Aden, the Yemeni capital, in the first half of the 20th century. “It was possible only because of the openness of the ruler of Bahrain,” Bishop Hinder said.
Bahrain’s constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia (Islamic law) to be a principal source for legislation. As with the rest of the Gulf, converts from Islam to Christianity or other religious groups are not well tolerated by society and face pressure from family members, community leaders and government officials. Evangelizing 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 “provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites”.
And like much of the Arab world, considerable efforts have been made in recent years to make Bahrain society more tolerant and push a more liberal form of Islam.
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