Overview of Church in Bahrain ahead of Pope’s visit
By Lisa Zengarini
Similar to the other Muslim nations of the Arabian Peninsula, the presence of Christian communities in Bahrain is relatively recent and is mostly related to that of diplomatic staff and of foreign companies and workers, who began flowing to the Gulf island nation starting from the early 1930s.
At first, Catholics hailed mostly from neighbouring Middle Eastern countries but, after the oil boom in the region, thousands of Christian immigrants from Asia also started to arrive.
The Catholic community in Bahrain
Even today, the vast majority of Christians in Bahrain (who account for some 15% of the population, 70% of which is Muslim) is made up of foreign citizens who reside there for work purposes.
They come mostly from Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and Jordan, but also from Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, and also Western countries.
It should also be noted that Bahrain is one of the few Gulf states to have a local Christian population: they are about 1,000, mostly Catholics originating from neighbouring Arab countries, who arrived in Bahrain between 1930 and 1950, and who have been granted Bahraini citizenship. The Gulf nation also hosts 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 Law (the Islamic law), Christian communities and other religions are allowed freedom of worship.
In fact, despite ongoing tensions within the Muslim-majority community between Shias and Sunnites, the al-Khalifa Kingdom has a long tradition of religious tolerance and is open to interreligious dialogue as shown, amongst 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 to be erected in modern times in the Gulf region is indeed located in Bahrain: the Church of the Sacred Heart was built in 1939 in the capital Manama, on a plot of land graciously donated by the Emir to the Catholic Church.
In recent years, a second church has been erected in the municipality of Awali on a 9,000 square-meter plot of land given to the Church by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in 2013.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia is presently the largest Catholic church in the region, seating 2,300 people. The project, which was strongly advocated by the late Bishop Camillo Ballin, at the time Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia, was launched in 2014. The modern-style church was consecrated on 10 December 2021 by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization, in the presence of King Hamad, who on that same day was given a letter from Pope Francis.
Significant progress in Holy See-Bahrain diplomatic relations
This openness to interreligious dialogue is further testified by the positive diplomatic interaction with the Holy See, which established diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Bahrain in 1999.
Relations have significantly progressed in more recent years and 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 Christian community’s positive contribution to the country.
This official visit was followed by that of Prince Salman in 2020 and, on 25 November 2021, by the visit of the King’s Counselor for Diplomatic Affairs, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, who renewed the official invitation for the Pope to visit the country.
Through his envoy, King Hamad also expressed his endorsement of the historic Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed on 4 February 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
Both 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 Human Coexistence,” from 3-4 November.
The two-day event sponsored by King Hamad, will gather some 200 prominent global faith leaders and scholars to further the spirit of fraternity and cooperation among followers of different faiths, while working together to address the world’s present challenges and issues which threaten our common home and peace.
Pope Francis’ 39th Apostolic Journey will also offer the opportunity to meet leaders of other Christian Churches in the country and the local Catholic community.
The Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia
Catholics residing in Bahrain are presently under the jurisdiction of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern 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 are in Awali.
Since the death of Bishop Camillo Ballin, M.C.C.I. in 2020, the See is vacant and has been entrusted to an Apostolic Administrator in the person of Bishop Paul Hinder, O.F.M. Cap., former Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia. The two Vicariates are members of the Conference of Latin Bishops for the Arab Region (CELRA).
Currently, about 65 priests work in the Vicariate of Northern 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 one school, the Catholic Church does not run educational or health institutions.