WASHINGTON — As he oversees the missionary territory of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, apostolic vicar Camillo Ballin outlined Catholics’ need for religious toleration as well as a physical home for ministry.
A native of Italy, Bishop Ballin set out to study Arabic and Islam in order “to discover another world” after his ordination as a priest of the Comboni Missionaries.
In a May 29 interview with Catholic News Agency, he noted that his travels have taken him to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan and eventually to his 2005 appointment as apostolic vicar of Kuwait.
His vicariate — otherwise known as an ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the Church, where a hierarchy is not yet fully organized — was expanded in 2011 to include the whole of the Northern Arabian Peninsula, which oversees Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The area has supported a Christian population since before the advent of Islam, a fact that many Christians in the area look to for inspiration, Bishop Ballin said.
As an example, he pointed to a church within the vicariate that is dedicated to St. Arethas and the 400 martyrs that were persecuted and killed over a century before Islam came to the area.
Today, ministry within the vicariate focuses upon the spiritual sustenance of 2.5 million Christians in the area, Bishop Ballin said.
A major concern for the vicariate, he noted, is promoting religious freedom for Christians in the area. Most of the Catholic faithful in the area are guest workers from countries such as India and the Philippines.
“We don’t ask for particular laws for the Christians,” the bishop said.
He explained the concept of religious freedom in the Arabian Peninsula, noting that the Church in the area does not seek to entice Muslims within the country to abandon their faith.
“We ask just to have places for worship” and opportunities for the spiritual formation of migrant workers in the area, he said.
While the countries “are tolerating the presence of Christians,” the bishop noted that his ministry also requires that he “respect the laws of the country and not forget that the religion of the country is Islam.”
Another challenge the vicariate faces is the diversity of the guest workers within the area. “All our faithful are from many countries and many rites,” he said, adding that, in Bahrain alone, weekly Masses are said in five different Catholic rites and a dozen languages.
The bishop said that, although creating a unified Catholic community among parishioners from such different backgrounds is challenging, it is a priority for the vicariate.
Thus the vicariate holds many events to help bring Catholics together as a unified community, such as an annual unity conference held in Kuwait that draws together 400-plus faithful to discuss topics related to the faith.
While the vicariate faces these challenges, it has also received support from some countries within the area that have developed a relatively strong respect for the freedom of religion.
“Bahrain is not only tolerating but encouraging” Christianity, said Bishop Ballin, commenting that the country has granted the vicariate land for a new cathedral and supports a small population of local Christians in addition to Catholic guest workers.
New Cathedral Complex
A new proposed cathedral — for which $25 million will need to be raised by 2016 — is planned for the vicariate’s new episcopal seat in Bahrain and will be dedicated to Our Lady of Arabia.
According to the bishop, there is a strong Marian devotion among Catholics in the area, particularly to Our Lady of Arabia, who is patroness of the Gulf.
The new cathedral complex will feature a main cathedral that can fit up to 2,000 faithful, a residence for the bishop, multipurpose halls, underground parking and residential halls for clergy and religious.
The vicarate’s lease on its current cathedral in Kuwait expires in 2016.
The episcopal seat was moved from Kuwait to Bahrain in 2011 because of the country’s central location among the northern Gulf states, as well as King Bin Isa Al Khalifa’s “magnanimous” support and openness towards Christians in the country, said Bishop Ballin.