News Analysis

Bahrain: Catholics return to the desert

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain (CNS)

A cathedral is being built in the Arabian peninsula

There were Christians in the Arabian desert before the coming of Islam: they included bishops, saints and kings. These communities, however, did not long survive the victories of Islam, whose founder, according to a subsequent tradition, evicted all non-Muslims from the Arabian peninsula.

Work has now begun on a Catholic cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady of Arabia, in the Arab Gulf state of Bahrain. It is a historic development, but not totally new. In the past century Christians have returned to this region in great numbers, though as guest workers, not to stay. They were slow to be given civic and economic rights, but their right to worship is better recognised than in countries where Christians are indigenous, like Egypt and Iraq.

Although the population of the Arab Gulf was very conservative a generation ago, this is changing fast, and politically there is no quarrel with Christians.

Saudi Arabia has remained an exception, where Christians cannot worship freely, and the tradition mentioned above will probably deter its new, reforming leadership from changing this. The neighbouring UAE, however, has 40 Christian churches, including one in Dubai that may be the largest Catholic parish in the world (numbering about 350,000 worshippers).

Serving the enormous but almost wholly transient Christian communities of the Gulf are two bishops. One is in the UAE, and the other moved recently from Kuwait to Bahrain. This made a lot of sense: Bahrain has about 1,000 actual Christian citizens, mostly of Iraqi origin, one of whom recently served as ambassador to London.

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa welcomed the move by donating land for the new cathedral, which will serve the many communities in Saudi Arabia with no official church. (He has even shown a model of the planned cathedral to Pope Francis.) The king’s patronage not only has a practical benefit but is also a gesture of official favour and protection.