Building the Church in Arabia Is About More Than Just Buildings

Bishop Camillo Ballin of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia talks about plans for the newest Catholic church in the region and the challenges of building a unified Catholic community across ethnic groups and languages.

Bishop Camillo Ballin, vicar apostolic of northern Arabia
Bishop Camillo Ballin, vicar apostolic of northern Arabia (photo: Addie Mena/CNA)

King Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain has given land to the Catholic Church to construct a 2,500-seat church in the Middle Eastern island nation, to be called Our Lady of Arabia. Bishop Camillo Ballin, the apostolic vicar of the northern Arabian Peninsula, traveled to the United States this month to raise a portion of the $30 million needed for the construction of the church.

Bishop Ballin spoke with Register correspondent Christopher Crawford on March 14 in Washington about the challenges facing the Church in the Muslim-dominated region.


Please start by telling our readers about the history of the Church in northern Arabia.

Many people have started to come from India, Asia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries. They started to come for work and to have a better life. So now the Catholic community is by very far the [largest religious] community. We are in good relations with the Protestants, with the Anglicans. There are not even conflicts between us and the Muslims. Certain tensions are among the Muslims themselves; not between the Muslims and the Christians.

In 1939, the first Catholic church was built in Bahrain. It was a church for 100 people. And people criticized the bishop because they felt that he built too big of a church. Later, in the 1950s, a bishop built a church for 700 people, and people criticized this bishop because they again believed he built too big of a church. But there are now 350,000 Catholics [in Bahrain]. Now, we want to build a church for 2,500 people, and the people criticize me because they say I will build too big of a church. I smile at this criticism, because they will see that this is too small of a church!


How many Catholics are in this vicariate?

There are 2.5 million total. There are around 350,000 in Kuwait; the same in Qatar; 140,000 in Bahrain; and 1.5 million in Saudi Arabia.


What is life like for the faithful in the region?

There is a big percentage of the faithful coming to Sunday Mass. They feel more of a necessity to be with God, in communion with God, because they are alone. Many of them left their families, relatives and friends in their home countries.They find consolation in God. I have around 30% to 35% of faithful coming to Mass.


What is life like within the parishes?

These communities are very vibrant, very active. They have religious interest, but also social interest. If people are Indians, there are many Indian associations that are not religious; they are civil. We have a very big involvement in helping the poor without any structure. All of the money goes to the poor because there are no expenses for the structure. [The communities] are vibrant, but they tend to be closed to themselves. Indians for the Indians; Filipinos with the Filipinos. It is a problem to form all of these parishes into one Catholic Church because everyone wants to be with their own language, their own group, their own priest. … They want to form an independent republic! The bishop has to manage how to form unity or to create unity or to encourage unity.


Does the Church take care of the poor in these countries?

Who are our poor? Our poor are our faithful who suddenly lose their jobs. They don’t have a salary to maintain their family. We help them to find jobs or to repatriate.

For example, this Lent, we have put a box in every church [to collect] a Lent offering. We have explained to the people that this money will be for extreme cases. For example, someone who needs surgery and has no money. Even now, as we raise funds for the Church, the Lent offering is for the poor and not for the Church.


Can you tell us about difficulties of being Christian in this region?

The Christians in Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar have full freedom of worship within the compounds of the church. No police enter the church to control what we are doing. No government interferes inside the church. We are very much respected. But outside the church, we cannot do any religious things. So I go outside in my cassock; this is my attire — no problem. I am respected. But we cannot make processions in the streets.


For this reason, is there a lack of social presence from charitable groups based in the Catholic faith ?

In some countries, that is understood to be proselytization. They say we do things because we want to convert, so we cannot [do these things]. In the hospitals, there are thousands of nurses who are Catholics. They help. We are convinced that when the nurses have good spiritual formation, they can help the sick people; and they approach any sick people — not only the Christians. This social work is done in an indirect way through these nurses or doctors.


Do Catholics have any impact on political life in the Arabian Peninsula?

No, because the Christians have their own language; they don’t speak Arabic well. They are there for their jobs. They don’t want to be involved in politics.

Personally, there is another reason. I have a Bahraini passport. I would never interfere in politics, not because I am afraid that [King Al Khalifah] would take my passport back, but because it is not my mission. My mission is not to enter into politics; my mission is to invite everybody to a dialogue, to reach understanding and to form a more respectful society.


It has been said that it is impossible to build churches in the region, making the case of Our Lady of Arabia very special. Why is it impossible?

In Qatar, for a long time, they prohibited any church. Then they gave land to every church [in 2008].

In Bahrain, we have the first Catholic church [constructed in the region], so Bahrain has been always an open country. And now, they gave land to the Catholic Church. Bahrain remains a country that was open and remains open. In Kuwait, we have churches that were built 50 years ago. And now, we are struggling and asking to have other lands for more churches because we are in need. In Saudi Arabia, the government says that all of Saudi Arabia is a big mosque, so we cannot build a church inside the mosque. They say it publicly. This is not an accusation; it is their explanation.


How did the project to build Our Lady of Arabia come to be?

In Bahrain, we are in need of another church. Since the bishop is based in Bahrain, this church is called the cathedral. The king gave us the land, and we started to collect the money from the people. Our people are migrant workers who have very limited salaries, and they are very generous. But they have given their maximum, $3 million or $4 million. But this is not enough — we need $30 million.

We have given the cathedral the name “Our Lady of Arabia.” So I invite all of the women whose name is Mary to offer $10 for the new church, for the new house of the Virgin Mary. They can send them to the Association of Aid to the Church in Need. Also, the men who have the name Mario — they are close enough to Mary! And people who know someone whose name is Mary: We can get them to offer $10.

We need an ocean of money, but an ocean formed by many drops. Any drop is precious for us.


What has been the reaction in the region to the news of a new church?

Up to now, there is no reaction. Perhaps once we start to build, maybe someone will awake [to react]. But the church will be in a protected area, and we do not expect any violent reactions anyway. I am trusting the people of Bahrain, who have always been open-minded. I am sure they will understand the needs of the Catholics in their country.


What are the relations between the Church and the state regarding the cathedral?

I have a promise that the government of Bahrain will help. I will have to follow up on this promise. I think that a cathedral dedicated to Our Lady of Arabia is not just a need. It is a symbol: the presence of Christianity in the heart of Islam. This is not with the purpose of converting, but with a purpose of collaboration with the Muslims to form an always-better society in the region.

Readers may find more information on the project and donate here.

Register correspondent Christopher Crawford is the director of

pro-life ministry at The George Washington University’s Newman Catholic Student Center.