Tension over plan for church in Bahrain

2012-09-04 08:02

Manama — The building of the largest Roman Catholic church in the Gulf was supposed to be a chance for the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain to showcase its traditions of religious tolerance in a conservative Muslim region where churches largely operate under heavy limitations.

Instead, the planned church — intended to be the main centre for Catholics in the region — has turned into another point of tension in a country already being pulled apart by sectarian battles between its Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities.

Hardline Sunni clerics have strongly opposed the construction of the church complex, in a rare open challenge of the country's Sunni king. More than 70 clerics signed a petition last week saying it was forbidden to build churches in the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.

One prominent cleric, Sheik Adel Hassan al-Hamad, proclaimed in a sermon during Friday prayers last month, that there was no justification for building further churches in Bahrain, adding, "anyone who believes that a church is a true place of worship is someone who has broken in their faith in God".

In response, the government ordered him transferred out of his mosque, located in the elite district of Riffa, where many members of the royal family live and the king has several palaces.

But the transfer order touched off a wave of protests by the cleric's supporters on social media sites and by Sunni-led political blocs. Finally, the government was forced last week to cancel the order.

More than 50 killed

The uproar reflects the widening influence and confidence of hardline Sunni groups, who have been a key support for the monarchy as it faces a wave of protests led by Shi'ites demanding greater political rights.

Shi'ites account for about 70% of Bahrain's population of just over half a million people, but claim they face widespread discrimination and lack opportunities granted to the Sunni minority.

The monarchy has also has relied heavily on help from ultraconservative Saudi Arabia, which last year sent troops to help crush protests.

More than 50 people have been killed and hundreds detained in nearly 19 months of unrest in the strategic island kingdom, which is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet. Bahrain's rulers have promised some reforms and urged dialogue to ease the crisis.

Instead, positions on all sides have hardened.

Many among the majority Shi'ites claim the Sunni monarchy is not interested in reforms that would weaken its near monopoly on power.

Timing questioned

Bahrain's most senior Shi'ite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, has actively opposed the church plans, questioning why the government should donate land for a Christian site when Shi'ite mosques have been destroyed as part of the crackdowns.

A Bahrain-based political analyst, Ali Fakhro, questioned the timing of the church project at a time when the nation is still locked in its own upheavals.

"What Bahrain needs is to solve it is own internal issues rather than adding more new things that could be the source of troubles," he said. "The plate is already full."

So far the outcry has brought no change in plans to build the church complex, which has been backed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's monarchy.

The complex will be the size of a large shopping centre — about 9 000m² — in Awali, an area near Riffa, south of the capital, Manama. It is to be a base for the Vatican to the small Catholic communities in the northern Gulf, as well as a spiritual centre for other Christian denominations.

Work on the compound is still in its preliminary stages and no firm date has been given for its completion, leaving open the possibility of more complaints in the coming months.


The church project is part of last year's change by the Vatican to carve out a new apostolic district covering Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The administrative headquarters are expected to shift from Kuwait to Bahrain.

There are believed to be several million Christians in the overwhelmingly Muslim Gulf region, the vast majority of them expatriate workers who largely come from East and South Asia.

Throughout the Gulf states, non-Muslim places of worship must work discreetly and cannot actively reach out for converts. In Saudi Arabia, churches are banned completely and any overt wearing of non-Muslim religious symbols is banned.

But Bahrain has a multi-religious tradition — and tolerance — that is unique in Gulf. The island nation has several Christian extended families which originally immigrated from Iraq, Iran or elsewhere in the early 20th Century and gained citizenship when Bahrain gained independence.

Similarly, it has native Jewish and Hindu communities. The first Roman Catholic church in the Gulf was built in 1939 on land donated by Bahrain's emir.

The building of the church complex "is a sign of openness, important for Bahrain, and I hope it will serve as a model for other countries, too", the region's bishop, the Reverend Camillo Ballin, said in a statement.

Destruction dismissed

Elsewhere in the Gulf, issues over Christian churches have flared in the past year.

In Kuwait, Islamist lawmakers have proposed bans on further construction of churches. Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, Abdel Aziz Al Sheik, reportedly urged for the destruction of all Christian churches on the Arabian peninsula, but it was quickly dismissed by nearly all Islamic leaders in the region.

"Bahrain is a country of tolerance among all religions, sects and races. This is well known about Bahrain's history," said the Reverend Hani Aziz of Bahrain's National Evangelical Church, who was among 19 non-Catholic Christian leaders who also met with Bahrain's king over the project. "The construction of a church falls in line with this image."

  • allcoveredinNinjas - 2012-09-04 08:35

    Religion , Same $hit different millenia. Its literally watching people kill each other over which invisible friend is real or even worse , those who agree their invisible friend is real but beleive he tells them different things which of course means you need to bomb , maim and kill each other .

  • CaptainGaza - 2012-09-04 08:49

    It seems a case of "My church is bigger than your church!" Religion, what a joke!

  • boom.baracus - 2012-09-04 08:53

    The arab states are apartheid states, and they have the gall to slander Israel!!!!

      alex.nkosi.39 - 2012-09-04 10:17

      Baracus, israel is the most conservative and racist state in middle east, last month it deported more than 2000 of african brothers who run away from oppressive regimes in their countries, mostly from south sudan, then arabs and israelis are cousins . They will cause the third world war. Pathetic idiots

  • rudie.stoltz - 2012-09-04 08:59

    ha ha ha will you never learn. Muslims do not give a damn about other religions. In fact they outlaw it. You either accept theyre religion or you get killed. Why would they allow anyother religion in theyre countries ? that would be going against theyre own purpose setout in the koran. LOL @ "The building of the largest Roman Catholic church in the Gulf was supposed to be a chance for the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain to showcase its traditions of religious tolerance"

      saintbruce.bruce - 2012-09-04 10:06

      Quite right. Islam is not tolerant of any other beliefs and never has been as it actively advocates the extermination of all other faiths. Islam is not peaceful. On Sunday night I listened to a Pastor from Uganda who has had 10 assassination attempts by Muslims on his life just because he is a Christian ! Nice Muslims hey? Go on You Tube for his story - Umar Mulinde - you will be shocked at their most recent attack against this man. Ok - so if you don't believe in anything, fine, but stay out of the way of those who do. Making idiot comments only betrays your thinking style. Watch how Islam reacts to this new church building and whether it is respected or not. There is a general rise of lawlessness the world over and Islam is a major proponent in this regard.

  • rick.kabose - 2012-09-04 09:34

    Sheik Adel Hassan al-Hamad, a real life Jeff Dunham puppet

  • walter.lebza - 2012-09-04 10:15

    Catholic is as bad, even worse than islam, they worship idols. Good move from bahrain officials.

  • AfricanPete - 2012-09-04 10:48

    Muslim states are not tolerant of any other religion. Islam wants to spread over the world like a plague. Just as scary as Christianity.

      alex.nkosi.39 - 2012-09-04 11:08

      What about jewish religion

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