On November 3-6, 2022, Pope Francis made his 39th apostolic trip to the Kingdom of Bahrain, an island located in the Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He was thus responding to the invitation of the civil and religious authorities, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the Muslim Council of Elders, to attend the “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence.”
Catholics in Bahrain
Although Islam is the official religion and Islamic law or Sharia is in force, Christian communities and communities of other faiths enjoy freedom of worship in Bahrain, unlike in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, like Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, the ruling house of Al-Khalifa promotes a religious policy that is tolerant and open to dialogue, as confirmed, among other things, by the fact that the kingdom is home to several non-Muslim places of worship, including two churches.
The overwhelming majority of Christians in the country (about 15% of the total population, 70% being Muslim) are foreigners who reside there for professional reasons. They come mainly from Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan, but also from Sri Lanka, India, and the Philippines, as well as some Western countries.
As in the other Muslim nations of the Arabian Peninsula, the presence of Christian communities in Bahrain is relatively recent and linked to the arrival of diplomatic personnel, companies, and foreign workers, who have settled in the country since 1930. Originally, there were mainly immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, but after the oil boom, thousands of Christians arrived from different Asian nations.
In addition, Bahrain is one of the few Gulf countries to have a local Christian population: there are about a thousand faithful, mostly Catholics of Arab origin who arrived between 1930 and 1950 and obtained Bahraini citizenship. Catholics today number 80,000. There are also small Jewish and Hindu communities.
Currently, 65 priests work in the Vicariate of Northern Arabia, including many Capuchins, assisted by men and women religious from other congregations. The work of the local Church is limited to pastoral activities and a few charitable initiatives carried out by associations and parish groups. Apart from a school, the Catholic Church does not manage any educational institutions or health establishments.
The first Catholic church was the Church of the Sacred Heart, built in 1939 in the capital Manama, on land ceded by the emir. The consecration of the country's second church, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, the largest Catholic church in the Arabian Peninsula, took place on December 10, 2021. It was built in the municipality of Awali on a plot of 9,000 square meters donated in 2013 by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
Thursday, November 3
At the end of the afternoon, Pope Francis gave the first speech of his trip to the authorities of the country, members of civil society, and the diplomatic corps. The Holy Father has launched an appeal for the distribution “in the arid deserts of human coexistence” of “the water of fraternity: let us not allow the possibility of the encounter between civilizations, religions, and cultures to evaporate, let us not allow the roots of humanity dry up!”
“Let us work together, let us work for everyone, for hope!” he asked. “I am here, in the land of the tree of life, as a sower of peace, to live days of encounter, to participate in a Forum for Dialogue between East and West for peaceful human coexistence.… I am here as a believer, as a Christian, as a man and pilgrim of peace, because today as never before, we are called, everywhere, to commit ourselves seriously to peace.”
Friday, November 4
The dialogue Forum “for human coexistence” was held in the Al-Sakhir Palace complex. In the morning, after speeches by the Bahraini King and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Francis delivered a speech at the conclusion of this Forum.
Addressing an audience of “believers in God” without distinction, the pope invited all to push back “isolating thoughts”: “prayer, the opening of the heart to the Most High, is fundamental to purify us from selfishness, from closure, from self-reference, from lies, and from injustice … so that the adoration of God will correspond to the concrete and fraternal love of neighbor in order to be together prophets of coexistence, artisans of unity, builders of peace.” (Did all these “believers” believe in the same God, one and triune, while Islam considers the Trinity to be blasphemy?)
In the afternoon, the Sovereign Pontiff gave his third speech before the members of the Council of Muslim Elders, at the mosque of the Al-Sakhir Palace complex. This council was established in 2014 to promote peace through Muslim communities, it is chaired by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, with whom on February 4, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.
The Pope called on his “brothers in Abraham, believers in the one God.” He insisted on “our unique and imperative duty, that of bringing the faithful back to the adoration of the God of heaven and to the men for whom he made the earth,” proposing two means: prayer and fraternity.
And he insisted: “Faced with an increasingly wounded and torn humanity which, under the cover of globalization, breathes with difficulty and fear, the great religions are called to be the heart which unites the members of the body, the soul that gives hope and life to the highest aspirations.”
Then the Pope went to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia for an ecumenical meeting and prayer for peace. The Holy Father spoke about the meaning of ecumenism, to live in “unity, which praise strengthens”, and “witness, which charity strengthens.” Two aspects of ecumenism which go hand in hand and are brought about by the Holy Spirit.
“Let us entrust to Him in prayer our common path and invoke upon us His outpouring of a renewed Pentecost which will give a new look and a rapid pace to our path of unity and peace,” he asked.
Usquequo Domine? How long, O Lord?
The FSSPX.News site last month noted that the words of the Pope on the “great religions” – quoted above – can appear as a negation of the Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Because, “there is only one Lord of humanity and one King who unites the members of His mystical body; a single Spirit which is like the soul of this body; and one God, Jesus Christ, who can ‘give hope to the highest aspirations’: salvation and the eternal vision of God that will meet and surpass the highest conceivable desires.”
“And all men are called to be part of the Mystical Body of Christ by the grace of God. No other ‘religion’ or so-called religion can give any ‘hope’ or ‘life to the highest aspirations’ of man. None of them can be a ‘heart that unites the members’ except by a mere human association, totally incapable of effecting this marvelous union between its members by grace. None of them was founded by God: they are the fruit of human invention, and teach doctrines incompatible with the immutable Truth which is Christ, the eternal Word of God.”
And it concludes: “All this can only lead to a profound indifferentism, to a disaffection of Catholics for their religion, which they think more and more should only be a veneer over civil and political society, sprinkled with a pseudo-charity with hints of naturalism.”
Saturday November 5
At 8:30 a.m. at the National Stadium in Bahrain, in the north of the country, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass for peace and justice in front of around 30,000 Catholic faithful from the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia.
In the afternoon he went to the Scared Heart school for a meeting with young people. Created in the 1940s by the Apostolic Vicar of Arabia, the school was entrusted to the Comboni Missionary Sisters, then to the Apostolic Sisters of Carmel. The sovereign pontiff sent them “three invitations to better face the challenges to come.”
Sunday November 6
Celebrating Sunday Mass in private, the pontiff presided over a prayer meeting at 9:30 a.m. with bishops, priests, consecrated persons, seminarians, and pastoral workers at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Manama. He gave a speech and recited the Angelus prayer.