As Pope Francis prepares to embark on his 39th overseas apostolic trip to visit Bahrain, we offer a glimpse of the Church in the Gulf nation, home to some 80,000 Catholics.
By Lisa Zengarini
Similar to other Muslim nations in the Arabian Peninsula, the presence of Christian communities in Bahrain is relatively recent and is mainly linked to that of diplomatic personnel and foreign businesses and workers, who began to flock to the Gulf island nation from the early 1930s.
At first, Catholics came mainly from neighboring countries in the Middle East, but after the oil boom in the region, thousands of Christian immigrants from Asia also began to arrive.
The Catholic Community of Bahrain
Even today, the vast majority of Christians in Bahrain (who make up about 15% of the population, 70% of whom are Muslims) are made up of foreign citizens who reside there for professional purposes.
They come mainly from Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and Jordan, but also from Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, and also from Western countries.
It should also be noted that Bahrain is one of the few Gulf States to have a local Christian population: there are around 1,000, mostly Catholics from neighboring Arab countries, who arrived in Bahrain between 1930 and 1950, and who have obtained Bahraini citizenship. . The Gulf nation is also home to other religious communities, including Jews and Hindus.
A long tradition of religious tolerance
Although Islam is the official religion and Bahrain’s legal system is based on Sharia (Islamic law), Christian communities and other religions enjoy freedom of worship.
Indeed, despite the persistent tensions within the predominantly Muslim community between Shiites and Sunnis, the kingdom of al-Khalifa has a long tradition of religious tolerance and is open to inter-religious dialogue as shown, among other things, by the fact that Bahrain is home to several non-Muslim places of worship, including two churches.
Two Catholic churches in Bahrain
The first Catholic church erected in modern times in the Gulf region is indeed in Bahrain: the Church of the Sacred Heart was built in 1939 in the capital Manama, on land graciously donated by the Emir to the ‘Catholic Church.
In recent years, a second church was erected in Awali municipality on a 9,000 square meter plot donated to the Church by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in 2013.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia is currently the largest Catholic church in the region, seating 2,300 people. The project, strongly supported by the late Bishop Camillo Ballin, then Apostolic Vicar of North Arabia, was launched in 2014. The modern-style church was consecrated on December 10, 2021 by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization, in the presence of King Hamad, who received a letter from Pope Francis that same day.
Significant progress in diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Bahrain
This openness to interreligious dialogue is further evidenced by the positive diplomatic interaction with the Holy See, which established diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Bahrain in 1999.
Relations have progressed considerably in recent years and more specifically since 2014, when Pope Francis received King Hamad, who presented the Pope with a model of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia and officially invited him to visit the Kingdom. . As reported by the Holy See Press Office during their meeting, the Holy Father and the King discussed “peace and stability in the Middle East” and the positive contribution of the Christian community to the country.
This official visit was followed by that of Prince Salman in 2020 and, on November 25, 2021, by the visit of the King’s adviser for diplomatic affairs, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, who renewed the official invitation. of the pope to visit the country.
Through his envoy, King Hamad also expressed his approval of the historic document on human fraternity for world peace and living together, signed on February 4, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.
Closer cooperation to promote interreligious dialogue and peace
Pope Francis and al-Tayyeb, who met again in September this year in Kazakhstan at the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Nur-Sultan, have now been invited to join the “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue : East and West for humanity”. Coexistence”, from November 3 to 4.
The two-day event, sponsored by King Hamad, will bring together some 200 leading religious and academic leaders from around the world to promote the spirit of brotherhood and cooperation among followers of different faiths, while working together to address challenges. current challenges and problems in the world that threaten our common home. and peace.
39 of Pope Francise The Apostolic Journey will also provide the opportunity to meet leaders of other Christian Churches in the country and of the local Catholic community.
The Apostolic Vicariate of North Arabia
Catholics residing in Bahrain are currently under the jurisdiction of the Apostolic Vicariate of North Arabia (formerly part of the Vicariate of Arabia from 1889 to 1953, later Apostolic Prefecture and then Vicariate of Kuwait), which was established in 2011. Its headquarters is in Madinat City, Kuwait.
Since the death of Bishop Camillo Ballin, MCCI in 2020, the seat has been vacant and has been entrusted to an Apostolic Administrator in the person of Bishop Paul Hinder, OFM Cap., former Vicar Apostolic of South Arabia. Both vicariates are members of the Conference of Latin Bishops for the Arab Region (CELRA).
Currently, about 65 priests are working in the Vicariate of North Arabia, many of them Capuchins, assisted by men and women religious from other Congregations.
The work of the local Church includes pastoral activities and some charitable initiatives carried out by parish groups and associations. Apart from a school, the Catholic Church does not operate educational or health facilities.