Cathedral’s Consecration in Bahrain Signals Latest Advance in Religious Tolerance

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia is expected to be the spiritual home of approximately 80,000 Catholics.

The inauguration is underway at Our Lady Arabia Cathedral in Awali, Bahrain, last week. The church is the largest Catholic cathedral in the Arabian Peninsula.
The inauguration is underway at Our Lady Arabia Cathedral in Awali, Bahrain, last week. The church is the largest Catholic cathedral in the Arabian Peninsula. (photo: MAZEN MAHDI / AFP via Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — 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.


Converts Still Shunned

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 U.S. 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. Faced with the prospect of drastically declining oil revenues as governments move away from fossil fuels, Gulf states have been forced into reassessing their religious, political and economic systems, but whether that will result in many more churches and greater freedom for Muslims to convert to the faith remains to be seen, say observers. 

“The test of whether the Bahraini rulers are making a step forward or are just trying to make the country more attractive to foreign investment will come when we see whether or not they will allow native Bahrainis, including Muslims who are interested in Christianity, to attend,” Robert Spencer, director of the organization Jihad Watch, a group that monitors Islamic extremism, told the Register. 

“A church for the expatriate Catholics from the Philippines and India is a kind gesture, but it doesn’t have any larger significance unless the native Christians and converts to the faith are allowed in,” he said.

Bishop Hinder sees the new cathedral as “a strong message of tolerance and openness” and noted various achievements that have paved the way for the new cathedral, especially the king of Bahrain’s visit to Pope Francis in 2014, when the king invited Francis to visit the country. 

“This special invitation marked the beginning of a new shift in the relation between the followers of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and the Catholic Church,” Bishop Hinder said. 

He also noted the Holy Father’s visit to the United Arab Emirates in 2019, his signing there of his “Human Fraternity” document with the grand imam of Al-Azhar University, and similar later visits to Morocco and Iraq.

“The freedom to practice one’s faith and to profess it in the public domain is a basic human right,” Bishop Hinder said. “Within the different Islamic Gulf countries, this fundamental right is being increasingly recognized,” he observed, adding that the Gulf states “are being more vocal about the importance of tolerance and how it is practiced within their societies.” 

By constructing this new cathedral, he also believes “this gesture will have its impact on the neighboring countries.”


Saudi Arabia’s Turn? 

This week, a new church was consecrated — the first in the Al Dhafra region of the UAE, about 150 miles west of Abu Dhabi. The Church of St. John the Baptist in Ruwais was built on land donated by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and its first Mass was celebrated Dec. 17.  

But will such initiatives ever extend to Saudi Arabia? One long-running question has been whether the Islamic kingdom, the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad that officially bars Christianity from being practiced anywhere on its territory (Catholic liturgies take place in secret), will eventually relax its restrictions to allow at least one church to be built in the country. 

Spencer was more pessimistic about progress when it comes to the Saudi kingdom. 

“It is extraordinarily unlikely that there will ever be a church built in Saudi Arabia, as there is a tradition in which Islam’s prophet Muhammad is depicted as saying that he will expel all the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula,” he said. 

“The Saudi regime takes this very seriously; it is the root of their refusal to allow any non-Muslim religious observance. It is unlikely that the Saudis would ever contravene the prohibition attributed to Muhammad, as they would likely be overthrown if they did.”

However, Bishop Hinder noted various recent initiatives that have offered hope: King Abdullah’s historic visit to Pope Benedict in 2007 (the first ever such visit by a Saudi monarch) and then visits to the kingdom by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai in 2017 and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran in 2018. 

“Such visits which take the path of dialogue and encounter help cultivate an increased understanding of the other,” Bishop Hinder said. “I feel these recent encounters, coupled with a growing tolerant outlook, which may also be compounded by the welcome signs like the papal visit in the region and the building of the new cathedral, hold out promise for the future.”