Bahrain’s King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa is loathed in Iran for the crackdown on the small island kingdom’s Shi’ite majority. Shi’ites have been demanding reforms from the Sunni monarchy that has ruled Bahrain for more than two centuries and radical groups want it overthrown.
Salafist Sunnis in Bahrain are also unhappy about the king’s grant to the Catholic Church.
A vicariate is a Catholic jurisdiction in a region that does not have a diocese. Ballin’s vicariate tends to the spiritual needs of more than two million Catholics in the Arab Gulf states, the vast majority of them expatriates from the Philippines and India.
Ballin thanked Bahrain’s king and ruling family “for their magnanimous gesture of goodwill to the Catholic community of Bahrain in granting 9,000 square meters of land” for the building of a church that will also serve as the vicariate’s apostolic headquarters.
Bahrain’s government’s confirmed the decision in a brief statement. “After thoughtful consideration and the completion of a new Roman Catholic Church in the kingdom, Bahrain will host [the] vicariate as a testament to the kingdom’s religious and cultural openness,” it said.
Opposition was quick in coming from Bahraini Salafists. Abdel Halim Murad, a lawmaker who heads the Salafist Asalah party, said in a series of tweets the building of churches in Islamic lands was haram (forbidden in Islam) and that the sound of church bells could not be allowed to drown out the call to prayer in the Arabian peninsula, the cradle of Islam.
Iranian media outlets reported Monday that 71 Sunni clerics in Bahrain had also signed a statement, demanding that the king reverse the decision.
Mohabat News, an Iranian Christian news agency, drew attention to a report on an Iranian regime-backed website affiliated with the Shi’ite seminary at Qom, slamming Hamad for the church decision.
“One crime of al-Khalifa and al-Saud in Bahrain is that they destroyed Shi’ite mosques and Hussainia,” the report said. Al-Khalifa and al-Saud are the ruling royal families of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia respectively. Hussainia are Shi’ite meeting halls.
“Now, Malik Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, dictator of Bahrain, has allowed the first Christian church to be constructed in Bahrain,” it continued. “By giving a construction permit for the first church and catholic vicariate in Bahrain, the king of Bahrain introduced himself as an open-minded man.” (Open-mindedness is not a positive trait in Islamic fundamentalist thinking.)
Mohabat News put the Iranian Shi’ite criticism over the church decision into context. “It should be remembered that after the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa banning the building of churches of any kind in the country,” it said.
‘Inhuman’ to deny Christians the right to worship freely
Contrary to the Shi’ite website’s assertions, the planned church is far from the first in Bahrain, where the Catholic Sacred Heart Church in Manama opened its doors in 1939. An Anglican cathedral’s precursor church was consecrated in 1953, and an evangelical church was first dedicated in 1906.
The land donated by the king for the new church and vicariate is in Awali, an area with a large expatriate population, and the location presently of a small church, shared by satellite Catholic and Anglican congregations.
The decision goes back to a mid-2008 meeting between Hamad and Pope Benedict XVI, who asked the king to allow a second Catholic church to be built in Bahrain.
Attempts to get government reaction to the opposition to the church plans were unsuccessful Monday, but Ballin told CNSNews.com that Bahrain wants to remain an open and accepting country, “ready to help everybody in his personal life, including the religious aspect.”
He said it would be wrong to welcome foreigners to work in the kingdom, but deny them the right to meet their spiritual needs.
“It is inhuman to ask from the non-Muslims only their work, necessary for the good of the country, and not to give them the possibility to refresh themselves through a regular religious practice,” Ballin said.
“If the Catholics are not helped in their religious life, there will be problems for the country and for the church,” he said.
“Catholics are human beings and every human being, if he is not helped by religion, he becomes unbalanced in every aspect of his life, even the social one,” the bishop added. “I am astonished that this very simple matter of fact is not understood by some people.”
Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet, is about three and a half times the size of the District of Columbia, an island linked to Saudi Arabia by a causeway. About 70 percent of the population is Shi’ite and Iran – just 150 miles across the Persian Gulf – has longstanding links with, and historical territorial claims to, the tiny island nation.
In 2007 an adviser to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described Bahrain as a “province” of Iran whose people wanted to be governed by Tehran.
Ballin attributed the decision to relocate his seat from Kuwait to Bahrain’s geographical location, saying it was “more central and easily accessible for meetings and conferences of church officials.”
Nonetheless, Kuwait has become somewhat less hospitable to Christians this year.
Last February a Kuwaiti Islamist lawmaker, Osama al-Munawer, announced he would submit a draft law banning the building of non-Islamic places of worship, arguing that there were already too many churches in Kuwait, given the size of the Christian community.
Munawer was at first understood to be calling for existing churches to be demolished, and his stance prompted the country’s minister of Islamic affairs to say that doing so would violate the law and damage Islam’s image. The lawmaker later clarified that he only wanted to prevent additional churches from being built.
Some weeks later, a Kuwaiti delegation visiting Saudi Arabia sought the guidance of the top Saudi cleric on the matter.
Saudi grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, told the Kuwaitis that all churches in the Arabian Peninsula should be destroyed. He cited a hadith – a saying or tradition of Mohammed – saying Islam’s seventh century prophet had said on his deathbed, “There are not to be two religions in the [Arabian] Peninsula.”