While Christianity is fading in countries across the Middle East and North Africa, the tiny island country of Bahrain recently opened the largest Catholic church in the Gulf, giving a tremendous boost to the Christian community.
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Situated about 20 miles south of the capital city, Manama, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia is literally an oasis in a desert, both spiritually and geographically.
In a gesture that reflects the coexistence and religious tolerance of his kingdom, King Hamad bin Isa Khalifa donated 9,000 square meters of land to the Catholics to build the church and, in 2014, he presented a model of the building as a gift to Pope Francis at the Vatican.
The church was completed and dedicated in December, just in time for Christmas.
On Saturday, Father Saji Thomas, a priest serving in Bahrain since 2013, welcomed the Evangelical delegation led by ALL ARAB NEWS Editor-in-Chief Joel Rosenberg. Thomas spoke with the delegation about the church itself, but also the Christian community and freedom of worship in the small nation.
“It is great to be a witness to Jesus and to proclaim the peace of Christ in these parts,” Thomas said.
Thomas said the Christian minority feels safe and protected in the Kingdom.
“As a minority, we feel safe always, the minority community was always safeguarded by the royal family and His Majesty of Bahrain. So we are always secure and protected,” he explained.
Growing up in Kerala, India and serving in remote regions, Thomas said his faith is continuous whether he holds mass outside or in a large church such as Our Lady of Arabia.
“But when more people are coming it is an opportunity to proclaim the Word of God to more people,” he said.
Indeed, during Easter season, the new church – which cost more than $14.5 million to build and seats 2,300 – hosted more than 4,000 worshippers for each service during Holy Week and Easter Sunday. Catholics came from around the Gulf including Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and neighboring Saudi Arabia – where there are no churches.
Bahrain itself is home to between 45,000 to 50,000 practicing Catholics, Saji said, most of them are foreign workers and expatriates from India and the Philippines. Christians constitute almost 10% of the total population of 1.5 million.
Saji explained the symbolism of the church’s architecture.
“It is shaped round, like a tent, because that is where Moses met with God and His people. That is the reason it looks like a tent,” said Thomas.
The rounded sanctuary’s modern design of laminate floors and dark wood pews is offset by gilded murals that tell of the life of Jesus, and a white marble altar and stone walls. The main message of the church is expressed in a mural above the altar with Jesus holding a tablet that reads, “Love your enemies. I am coming.”
“The Second Coming – this is what we are waiting for,” Thomas said.
In 2017, King Hamad signed the Bahrain Declaration expressing his commitment to freedom of worship.
“For hundreds of years, different religious groups have lived harmoniously, side by side, in the Kingdom of Bahrain, fully practicing the tenets of their respective faiths in blessed, peaceful coexistence with each other,” the declaration reads.
“We recognize that God instructs us to exercise the divine gift of freedom of choice, and therefore we declare that compelled religion cannot bring a person into a meaningful relationship with God. Therefore, we unequivocally reject compelled observance,” it continues. “Furthermore, we declare that every individual has the freedom to practice their religion, providing they do no harm to others, respect the laws of the land, and accept responsibility, spiritually and materially, for their choices.”
The declaration firmly condemns suicide bombings, terrorism, slavery, abuse and even “the encouragement of extremism and radicalization.”
Since signing the Abraham Accords, formalizing peace with Israel in 2020, Bahrain has welcomed an Israeli prime minister – Naftali Bennett – and opened an embassy in the Jewish state.
Though Our Lady of Arabia is not the only church in Bahrain, it solved a problem that other churches, specifically in downtown Manama, face: Lack of parking. The sprawling complex includes a large courtyard that can accommodate up to 6,000 people during large celebrations.
At the time of the dedication, Father Xavier Marian D’Souza, the parish priest at Manama’s Sacred Heart Church, stressed the importance of the new cathedral for Bahrain and the wider Gulf region.
“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 Gulf region, which has an area of about 9,000 square meters,” D’Souza said.
Even with the influx of Christian expats to the region, Christianity has declined dramatically in the Middle East. While a century ago, Christians constituted around 20% of the population in the Middle East and North Africa, the number of Christians in the region has declined to merely 5%.