AWALI, Bahrain — Over the last six years, religious tolerance has increased in the cradle of Islam, the Persian Gulf, according to clerics who live there as well as academic observers.
On May 31, a brick from St. Peter’s Basilica, which is being used as the foundation stone for the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia in Awali, Bahrain, was blessed by Bishop Camillo Ballin, apostolic vicar of northern Arabia.
The blessing ceremony marked the start of construction on a cathedral, pastoral center, guesthouse and car park — on land donated by King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa — to serve the faithful in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
King Hamad met Pope Francis May 19 at the Vatican and presented the Holy Father with a red box containing a scale model of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, which will be the largest Catholic church in the Persian Gulf.
Driving this positive trend are the increased numbers of guest workers who are Christian — primarily from the Philippines and India — and initiatives by wealthy rulers to open up the region to the world.
Foreign workers in the Persian Gulf are employed mainly in construction, domestic service, energy and health care. “Immigration started when the oil was discovered, around 80 years ago. It is always increasing, for the necessity of manpower,” Bishop Ballin, 70, explained to the Register via email.
And the numbers are mindboggling: In Qatar, for example, more than 1.3 million foreign nationals work for a Qatari population of only 280,000 citizens. Kuwait has about the same number of visiting workers but a larger local population of 2.2 million.
Bishop Ballin said more than 350,000 expatriates in both Qatar and Kuwait are Catholic, about evenly divided between Indians and Filipinos.
Saudi Arabia has the largest number of Catholics, about 1.5 million, which is about 6% of the country’s population. Filipino nationals comprise the majority of Catholics there.
Bahrain has some 140,000 Catholics among a guest-worker population of more than 665,000 and a local population of about 568,000.
The presence of Christian workers has compelled local rulers — except in Saudi Arabia, which Bishop Ballin calls a “particular case” — to accommodate their desire to worship and find community in religious fellowship.
Rise of Churches
Because Christians in most of the Persian Gulf countries are increasing in number, the main challenge is providing places of worship — and a diverse Mass schedule — says Bishop Ballin, who is based in Bahrain.
Although the territory includes Muhammad’s birthplace and Islam’s most sacred sites, the bishop said there is little religious antagonism between Muslims and Christians, except in Iran and Iraq.
“In northern Arabia, we live in a totally other ambience,” Bishop Ballin told the Register. “The problems between Israel and Palestine don’t touch us much. We are in another world.”
Christianity was widespread among Arab tribes in the first four centuries following Christ’s death and resurrection. With the birth of Muhammad and the emergence of Islam, Christianity disappeared from the Arabic Peninsula for more than 1,400 years. It gradually returned, beginning in the 19th century.
In 2008, King Hamad met with Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo, and he invited the Holy Father to visit his country.
A few months later, he sent Bahrain’s first ambassador to the Holy See (although the country established diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 2000). The Pope asked the Bahraini ambassador for help in establishing more churches for the growing Catholic immigrant population, and the king agreed, eventually donating 2.2 acres of land south of the country’s capital, Manama, upon which the new cathedral will be built.
Construction on the new cathedral dedicated to Mary will start in October and be completed in three to five years, at a cost of $39 million. Funds are being raised through Northern Arabia Catholic Faith Services and Aid to the Church in Need.
It will likely serve Catholics not only from Bahrain, but also those living in Saudi Arabia, who cross a 15-mile causeway to attend Mass because Muslim religious scholars have interpreted the Quran as forbidding churches in the country where Islam’s most sacred sites are located: Mecca and Medina. Therefore, no Catholic churches exist in Saudi Arabia, and people worship quietly in private spaces.
In contrast, Bahrain was the first country in the Persian Gulf to authorize a Catholic church: Sacred Heart Church opened in 1939.
The first cathedral in the Gulf region was built in Kuwait, on land offered by Sheikh Abdullah al Salim al Sabah, who ruled from 1950-65. Holy Family Cathedral was inaugurated in 1961, just three months before the country gained its independence from British rule.
Kuwait was also the first Gulf nation to establish diplomatic ties with the Holy See, in 1968.
Qatar’s ‘Church City’
Qatar established diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 2002, when some 45,000 Catholics were in the country, and weekly Mass was held in the school gym at the American school.
Six years later, the Catholic population had tripled, and the first Christian church in the country since the advent of Islam was inaugurated: the 2,700-seat Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, built on the outskirts of Doha on land granted by Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani.
Some 10,000 people participated in the five-hour-long Mass conducted in English, with prayers in the Filipino language Tagalog, as well as Hindi and Arabic.
According to The Associated Press, many wept when a relic of St. Padre Pio, the beloved Capuchin monk, was announced as being dedicated to the church. (Capuchins have had a special relationship to the countries of the Persian Gulf since 1888, when the Vatican entrusted the territory to the order’s care.)
Our Lady of the Rosary was the first of several church complexes constructed in an area of Qatar now known as “Church City,” including an Anglican/Protestant/evangelical center, a complex for three Orthodox churches and an Indian Christian building where some 12 denominations share space. No crosses or symbols of faith are allowed on the outside of church buildings.
What makes this development most significant is that Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, follows the strict Islamic Wahhabi school and, until now, did not allow Christians to practice faith openly.
Allen Keiswetter, scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former State Department foreign-service officer who served as director for Arabian Peninsula affairs, told the Register that Qatar’s new tolerance of Christian worship “is a positive opening more than an attempt to contain” foreign populations.
“Since the Qataris want to attract foreigners and make foreigners feel comfortable there, they realize they need to be more accommodating of religious expression,” Keiswetter said.
He continued, “The construction of ‘Church City’ is a good example of a pragmatic gesture that is also a very generous thing for the government to do.”
Another unusual gesture by the Qatari ruling family, with a positive Catholic twist, was an invitation to six top American universities, with special areas of undergraduate expertise, to open campuses in Doha. Georgetown University was invited for its program in foreign service, including international economics, international politics and culture and politics.
Called the “largest educational experiment in the Gulf” by the Financial Times in 2013, it is said to be the brainstorm of Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al-Missned, wife of the last emir and mother of the current ruler, who wanted her youngest daughter to receive top-notch college instruction without leaving home.
Jesuit Father Thomas Michel, a professor for the last year at Georgetown’s Doha campus, which opened in 2005, told the Register, “This is a tremendous commitment to education by the Qatari government. The core curriculum is the same in Washington and Doha, so everyone has to take theology and philosophy. I teach theology, I teach Muslim-Christian relations and a Bible course.”
“My students are one-third Qatari; another one-third is people living in Qatar, with parents who are Egyptian or Syrian for example; and one-third are international students from places such as Russia, China or Cyprus,” the priest continued.
“The students are smart, enthusiastic and soaking up what we teach,” said Father Michel, who described how impressed he was that students even knew a lot about the Society of Jesus.
Qatar’s commitment to education and jump-starting universities’ capacity for local youth has not been matched by concern for the migrant workers literally building the nation’s economy, according to groups such as Amnesty International.
Issues Facing Guest Workers
In Qatar, especially, the drive to build infrastructure and facilities for the 2022 FIFA World Cup — the first time the premier soccer tournament will be held in an Arab nation — has led the country to import cheap labor from Southeast Asia in numbers that the country possibly is not equipped to handle.
The “sponsorship” system used to bring workers to the country is ripe for abuse: People are sponsored to come, without the possibility of changing jobs or, eventually, gaining citizenship. To leave the country, guest workers must have permission. Therefore, employers have extensive control over the autonomy of foreign workers, which is especially problematic when someone runs away from an abusive employer and is, typically, arrested as a result.
Amnesty International published a report last year on the construction sector in Qatar, “The Dark Side of Migration,” alleging miserable work conditions, including 12-hour workdays, inadequate food, overcrowding and unsanitary labor camps. Based on personal interviews, the report claimed workers routinely had passports confiscated, salaries withheld and contracts violated.
A report on systematic abuse against domestic servants in Qatar — the majority are female, including 30,000 Filipino women — was released in March. It found isolation, overwork, physical and sexual abuse and fear to be characteristics of the workforce.
Church bulletins report on efforts to try to help parishioners who lose their jobs or can’t collect wages.
The Challenge of Unity
Overall, according to Bishop Ballin, the primary challenge is achieving unity: “We have many nationalities and languages. We celebrate in five rites in Kuwait and in 13 languages, for example.”
“Every community would like to be alone, with its own priest, separate from the others,” he added. “In this case, we have many Catholic churches besides each other and not one [Roman] Catholic church, although we respect all the rites. So unity of the Church is the biggest challenge for us.”
Judging from its dedicated website, that both unifies all the activities while treating the various church communities separately, the vicariate is actively progressing toward the bishop’s goal.
Victor Gaetan writes from Washington, where he contributes to Foreign Affairs magazine.