Will Kiko Arguello’s new Catholic cathedral in Northern Arabia, to be built amid growing sectarian violence in Bahrain, become a large target for violent groups in the region? Or more importantly, will the Catholic Church in Northern Arabia be known more for its cathedral than for its charity?
Bishop Camillo Ballin of the Vicariate of Northern Arabia, wants to build a massive new cathedral and pastoral complex in Bahrain, on public land given to the Vicariate by the King of Bahrain. The new Cathedral was designed by Mattia del Prete, a key lieutenant of Kiko Arguello, founder of the Neocatechumenal Way, and will thoroughly exemplify the “New Aesthetic” of the Neocatechumenal Way.
The project is not without significant controversy, which even Bishop Ballin admits in a pastoral letter dated November 22, 2015:
Finally, I want to thank in a special way those who are against this project and spread wrong information about it and about the Bishop. I thank them because their attitude confirms that our project is from God. When God wants to do something he always sends along many sufferings because he wants to tell us that that project is from him and not from me, so the glory has to go only to him and not to me. Thank you, brothers and sisters, for revealing to me, through your negative judgments or even calumnies, that what we are doing is from God. God bless you all.
Members of the Neocatechumenal Way, like Bishop Ballin, typically refer to criticisms by other Catholics as “calumnies”, but in this case, no criticisms by members of Bishop Ballin’s Catholic flock can be found in the public domain. Instead, the criticism comes from human rights advocates and the citizens of Bahrain. Here is a sampling:
Bahrain opposition urge Pope to stop church construction on ‘stolen’ land, December 19, 2014, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/bahrain-opposition-urge-pope-stop-church-construction-stolen-land-519195513, Retrieved July 3, 2016
Human rights organisations have called on Pope Francis to cancel plans for the construction of a church complex in Bahrain, over fears it would utilise public land allegedly bought up by the Royal family through the use of a secretive investment vehicle…The new cathedral will be constructed in Awali in central Bahrain, on land which opposition groups in the country – including Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) – claim is land seized from the public trust…“We urge Pope Francis to reconsider establishing a church on land that may have been stolen from the public trust to benefit the ruling elite,” said Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB…
Plan for Catholic church makes waves in Bahrain, Associated Press, September 3, 2012, http://www.bigstory.ap.org/article/plan-catholic-church-makes-waves-bahrain. Retrieved July 4, 2016
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 center 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…
Plans to Build Largest Church in Gulf Continue Despite Protests, Terra Sancta, September 27, 2012, http://www.terrasanta.net/tsx/articolo.jsp?wi_number=4281&wi_codseq=%20%20%20%20%20%20&language=en, Retrieved July 4, 2016
Construction is continuing on the largest Catholic Church in the Gulf after protests from hardline Sunnis in Bahrain. Tempers flared among radical Sunni groups earlier this month who are opposed to the plans to build the large church complex. In a rare open challenge to the country’s Sunni king, more than 70 clerics signed a petition saying it was forbidden to build churches in the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. According to AP, one prominent cleric, Sheik Adel Hassan al-Hamad, said during a sermon there was no justification for building further churches in Bahrain. In response, the government ordered the sheik to transfer to another district, setting off a wave of protests that later forced the government to rescind the order. Preliminary on the new complex, which will be the size of a large shopping mall when finished, began in the summer. Located in Awali, in the south of Bahrain’s capital, Manama, it will become the new headquarters of the Vicariate of Northern Arabia, led by Bishop Camillo Ballin. He and his staff, who are responsible for the pastoral care of over 2 million Catholics, will be moving to the new premises from their current home in Kuwait. Analysts say the church project has not come at the best time, as the nation is still dealing with sectarian tensions between its Sunni minority rulers and 70 percent of the population who are Shia.
Here is more recent news about the sectarian violence in Bahrain:
Joe Biden calls king of Bahrain to raise ‘strong concerns’ amid violence, The Guardian, July 2, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/02/joe-biden-bahrain-king-sunni-shia-violence, Retrieved July 3, 2016
Vice-president Joe Biden called Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to express “strong concerns”, the White House said late on Friday, alluding to a political crisis in the tiny island kingdom that threatens its close ties to the US, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. In a description of the call, the White House said Biden and the king spoke of “recent negative developments in Bahrain and their implications for the wider region”. On Thursday, an explosion south of the Bahraini capital, Manama, killed a woman and injured her three children. A day later, police said the blast was a “terrorist bombing” in the village of Eker and said officers had begun an investigation. Violence has increased in Bahrain as the Sunni monarchy has cracked down on dissent among factions of the majority Shia population. Recent bombings have been blamed on radical Shia opposition groups, which were largely driven underground after failed protests in 2011.
Bahrain’s Sunni Rulers Revoke Citizenship of Top Shiite Cleric, New York Times, June 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/world/middleeast/bahrains-sunni-rulers-revoke-citizenship-of-top-shiite-cleric.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FBahrain&action=click&contentCollection=world®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection&_r=0, Retrieved July 3, 2016
Escalating a crackdown on political opposition, the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain said Monday that it had revoked the citizenship of a top cleric who is regarded as the spiritual voice of the country’s Shiite majority. Rights activists and other critics said the move against the cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, is likely to further inflame divisions in Bahrain, a tiny Persian Gulf kingdom that is home to the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet and is an important American ally. Bahrain has been periodically roiled by protests seeking more democracy since the Arab Spring uprisings five years ago, and its police and security agencies have a reputation for using disproportionate force. Ayatollah Qassim has been an outspoken critic of the government’s tactics.
Discrimination in Bahrain: The Unwritten Law, Bahrain Center for Human Rights, http://www.bahrainrights.org/node/29, Retrieved July 3, 2016
The Shiites comprise around 70% of total citizens. Despite the clear outnumbering of Shiites in society, the percentage of Shiites occupying top government jobs is either low or non-existent, reflecting blatant discrimination in public jobs. Followers of the Shiite sect occupy merely 18% of the total of high-ranking posts covered by the report. Critical jobs such as ministers of foreign affairs and interior are off limits for the Shiite. In fact, the real percentage of high-ranking posts occupied by the Shiite is most likely less than what this report has concluded; so is the case because some establishments not covered in the report do not employ Shiite.
The marginalized Shia majority in Bahrain perceives that the Catholic Church is in collusion with a corrupt Sunni king and his privileged Sunni elite in the building of its new, colossal Cathedral. This is a recipe for disaster.
- Bahrain opposition urge Pope to stop church construction on ‘stolen’ land, December 19, 2014, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/bahrain-opposition-urge-pope-stop-church-construction-stolen-land-519195513, Retrieved July 3, 2016
- Plan for Catholic church makes waves in Bahrain, Associated Press, September 3, 2012, http://www.bigstory.ap.org/article/plan-catholic-church-makes-waves-bahrain. Retrieved July 4, 2016
- Plans to Build Largest Church in Gulf Continue Despite Protests, Terra Sancta, September 27, 2012, http://www.terrasanta.net/tsx/articolo.jsp?wi_number=4281&wi_codseq=%20%20%20%20%20%20&language=en, Retrieved July 4, 2016
- Plan for Catholic church makes waves in Bahrain, Fox News, September 3, 2012, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2012/09/03/plan-for-catholic-church-makes-waves-in-bahrain.html, Retrieved July 4, 2016
- Joe Biden calls king of Bahrain to raise ‘strong concerns’ amid violence, , The Guardian, July 2, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/02/joe-biden-bahrain-king-sunni-shia-violence, Retrieved July 3, 2016
- Bahrain’s Sunni Rulers Revoke Citizenship of Top Shiite Cleric, New York Times, June 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/world/middleeast/bahrains-sunni-rulers-revoke-citizenship-of-top-shiite-cleric.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FBahrain&action=click&contentCollection=world®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection&_r=0, Retrieved July 3, 2016
- Bahrain Cathedral Update, Vicariate of Northern Arabia, http://www.avona.org/download/bishops_office_nov2015.pdf, Retrieved July 3, 2016.
- Bishop Ballin: To live, to spread peace https://www.gloria.tv/video/zfZbztwHfjpV4vugZo6JQoUHa, Retrieved July 3, 2016
- Bahrain cathedral will be symbol of Christianity in heart of islam, http://catholicphilly.com/2014/03/news/national-news/bahrain-cathedral-will-be-symbol-of-christianity-in-heart-of-islam/, Retrieved July 3, 2016
- A Church in the sands, http://americamagazine.org/issue/current-comment-40, Retrieved July 3, 2016
- Bahrain land deals highlight alchemy of making money from sand, Financial Times, December 11, 2014, https://next.ft.com/content/b6d081a2-74b8-11e4-8321-00144feabdc0, Retrieved July 3, 2014
- Bahrainis allege a plot to change country’s sectarian balance, Middle East Eye, September 14, 2014, http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/bahrainis-allege-government-scheme-change-countrys-sectarian-balance-1789604145, Retrieved July 3, 2016
- Bahrain Drain,Foreign Affairs,September 5, 2014, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2014-09-05/bahrain-drain, Retrieved July 3, 2016
- Bahrain, CIA World Factbook, http://www.ciaworldfactbook.us/asia/bahrain.html, Retrieved July 3, 2016
- Discrimination in Bahrain: The Unwritten Law, Bahrain Center for Human Rights, http://www.bahrainrights.org/node/29, Retrieved July 3, 2016
- Bahrain Welcomes First Catholic Cathedral, Christianity Today, June 24, 2014, http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2014/june/bahrain-welcomes-first-catholic-cathedral.html
- Christianity Rises in the Heart of Islam, RealClearReligion, March 20, 2014, http://www.realclearreligion.org/articles/2014/03/20/christianity_rises_in_the_heart_of_islam.html, Retrieved July 4, 2016