As the Sunni clergy clashes with the ruler of this Middle Eastern Kingdom, Christians risk losing the little freedom they have to profess their faith in secret
The plan to build the biggest Catholic Church on the Arabic peninsula – in the small Kingdom of Bahrain (which means “two seas” in Arabic), is triggering a religious war between the Sunni clergy, the country’s king and naturally the Christians in the region who are forced to practice their faith in a secret if not clandestine way. Bahrain has a tradition of limited religious tolerance, in a region where non Muslims are subject to all sorts of limitations and discrimination.
Bahrain is a small majority Shiite (around 70%) country, governed by a Sunni minority. In recent months, having faced a failed local “Arab Spring”, the king managed to come out on top thanks to the military help of Saudi Arabia, the region’s “Big Brother”.
There are a few million Christians living in the region; most of them hail from the Far East but some are Arabs, from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, many of them born in Bahrain, like Jews and Hindus. The Vatican has decided to create a new apostolic district which should encompass Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where any form of Christian religious manifestation is forbidden and severely punished. The church that is currently being built is part of the project; indeed, the apostolic administrator’s “headquarters”, which are currently located in Kuwait, should be moved to Bahrain.
The new church complex will occupy a 9 thousand square metre space in Awali, in the southern part of the capital, Manama. The construction work, supported by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has already begun; the centre should be a reference point not just for Catholics but for all Christian denominations. Unlike other countries in the region, Bahrain has a tradition of religious tolerance; the Gulf’s first Catholic Church was built in 1939, on land that was donated by the then emir of the country. This was seen as a flagship project in a region where religious tolerance is a very delicate topic indeed.
It should be noted that the country is already divided by a serious religious clash between Sunnis and Shiites. However, in recent days, about 70 Sunni religious leaders signed a petition against the project going ahead. This is a rare example of open dissent against the king’s will and some advice from Saudi Arabia is not excluded.
In a sermon last Friday, the renowned imam, Sheik Adel Hasan al-Hamad, spoke out against the church being built and went as far as to say that “whoever believes that a church is a real place of worship, has severed their faith in God.” The government ordered for him to be transferred from his mosque in the elegant city of Riffa to another area. But it was forced to retrace its steps after a wave of protests from the imam’s colleagues. But there are signs of an increasing intolerance towards Christians across the whole region.
Muslim MPs in Kuwait have proposed a law to prohibit the construction of new churches; the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has apparently suggested that all Christian churches on the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, be destroyed.