The Kingdom of Bahrain this weekend inaugurated the largest Catholic church in the Gulf region and the Arabian Peninsula, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, more than eight years after King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa donated 9,000 square meters (around 97,000 feet) of land for the initiative.
The church can seat at least 2,300 people, and the complex includes offices, a residence for the bishop, and a courtyard that can accommodate 6,000 visitors and worshippers. It was built at a cost of more than $14.5 million (BD 5.5 million).
Around 80,000 Catholics live in Bahrain, mostly expatriate workers from the Philippines and India, but the new complex will also be a destination for the more than 2 million-strong Catholic community in the wider Arab Gulf.
The king of Bahrain sent his son, Abdullah bin Hamad, to inaugurate the church, in the presence of Bishop Paul Hender, who is both apostolic vicar for Southern Arabia and apostolic administrator for Northern Arabia, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, representing Pope Francis, and a number of senior figures and officials in Bahrain.
Dr. Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence, said in a speech during the ceremony, “This historic event confirms Bahrain’s keenness on tolerance and peaceful coexistence between different religions, and about 81 years ago the kingdom witnessed the beginning of the emergence of churches.”
Sheikh Khalid continued, “The Kingdom of Bahrain has a long and long history of tolerance, peaceful coexistence, respect for others, and respect for all religions and beliefs, which continued thanks to the rule of the Al Khalifa family. … In 1893 the American [Arabian] Mission Society came and a church, a school, and a hospital were established during the reign of Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain at the time. As a result of that outlook, insight, and future vision, we are today proud of the historical, civilizational, and cultural heritage that Bahrain contains.”
Father Xavier Marian D’Souza, the parish priest at Manama’s Sacred Heart Church, told The Media Line, “Bahrain witnessed an event that deepened its pioneering and distinguished role regionally and globally at the level of tolerance and coexistence, by inaugurating the largest cathedral church in the Arab Gulf region, which has an area of about 9,000 square meters.
“In Bahrain, there are approximately 80,000 Catholics residing in the kingdom, most of whom are of Asian nationality, as well as Jews, Buddhists, and many diverse religions, as these find a safe haven in Bahrain amid the acceptance and welcome of the peace-loving Bahraini people,” Father Xavier said.
Hala Ramzy, a Christian of Egyptian origin and a member of Bahrain’s Shura Council, the upper house of the National Assembly, told the Media Line, “The king of Bahrain has adopted many initiatives to promote a culture of tolerance and coexistence at the local and global levels, including the Kingdom of Bahrain’s hosting of many events concerned with promoting dialogue between religions, civilizations, and cultures.
“The opening of this cathedral coincided with the season of the kingdom’s celebrations of its 50th National Day, as well as the Christian community’s celebration of the birth of Christ, which is a source of joy, happiness, and pride for all Christians of all nationalities,” she continued.
“It is known that the Kingdom of Bahrain hosted the first Catholic church in the region, the Sacred Heart Church, in 1939, and today we celebrate in the largest cathedral in the region, so we thank God for this blessing,” Ramzy said.
Rev. Hani Aziz, the pastor of the National Evangelical Church in Bahrain, told The Media Line, “In the new Catholic cathedral, which is the largest in the Arab Gulf region, we have confirmed that the deep meaning of this great edifice is not in the area of its construction or its distinctive architectural design, but rather that it indicates the values of tolerance and coexistence in Bahrain.”
“Although the minority is Christian in Bahrain, and Islam is the state religion, there is complete respect and complete freedom for all religions and civilizations to perform their rituals freely and comfortably,” he said, adding, “The opening of the cathedral is a clear evidence to confirm this.”
Labiba Joseph Fares, desk editor at Al Bilad newspaper, told The Media Line: “King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s sponsorship of the opening of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Arabs in Awali reflects and distinguishes the image of high tolerance in the Kingdom of Bahrain.
“As a Christian who has lived in Bahrain for 15 years, I practice my religious rituals with respect, and I have never been subjected to any form of harassment or offensive speech. In Bahrain, there is respect and affection, and the people of Bahrain are kind, generous, and hospitable,” she said.