The largest Catholic Church in the Arabian Peninsula – the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia – recently opened its doors to the public in the Muslim-majority Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain. 

The impressive structure can seat some 2,300 worshippers and was constructed at a cost of more than $14.5 million. The complex also includes the Bishop’s house and pastoral center. The large courtyard can accommodate up to 6,000 people during large celebrations. 

The inauguration of the large church is the realization of the Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s vision of religious coexistence. There are approximately 80,000 Catholics living in Bahrain, the majority are immigrant workers from the Philippines and India. The new large church is also expected to attract visits from the more than 2 million Catholics residing in the Arab Gulf states. 

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Dr. Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence, emphasized Bahrain’s tradition for religious and cultural tolerance. 

“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. The Kingdom of Bahrain has a 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,” Khalifa declared. 

Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, special envoy of the King of Bahrain, meets Pope Francis, Nov. 25, 2021 (Photo: Vatican Media)

While Muslims form the large majority of the population in Bahrain, Christians constitute almost 10% of the total population. In addition, there are also smaller numbers of Hindus, Buddhists and Jews living in the Gulf country. 

The vision behind the new cathedral began in 2013 when the Bahraini king decided to donate approximately 97,000 square feet of land for the construction of the large structure for the benefit of the local Catholic community. In 2014, Pope Francis was personally presented with a model of the cathedral by Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. 

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. 

Unlike ancient indigenous Christian communities in Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt, most Christians in the Gulf states are expats or foreign workers. Christianity in these countries is viewed as a Western religion mainly practiced by foreigners living and working in the region. Each country in the region has its own policy on Christianity and freedom of religion. 

There are currently no official churches in Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that almost 2 million Christians reside in the conservative kingdom. However, Christians, Jews and other non-Muslim minorities have been allowed to practice their religions privately. 

Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia under construction (Photo: bahraincathedral.org)

By contrast, there are numerous churches in the United Arab Emirates, mainly in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. St. Joseph’s Cathedral is located in Abu Dhabi and a number of churches exist in Qatar. In Kuwait there are approximately seven official and 18 unofficial churches including a cathedral in Kuwait City. 

Despite the arrival of Christian expats from the West and Asia, Christianity has declined dramatically in the Middle East. A century ago, Christians constituted around 20% of the population in the Middle East and North Africa, but due to discrimination, oppression and emigration, the Christian population in the region has declined to merely 5%. 

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