Persian Gulf sees surprising surge in religious tolerance

June 9, 2014 by  
Filed under newsletter-asia

Saudi Arabia, June 06, 2014: 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.

Our Lady of Arabia Church in AwaliOn 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 40 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.

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 $30 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.

– national catholic register

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