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Bahrain’s new cathedral: an advance in tolerance or an attempt to attract foreign investment?

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The key will be whether they allow converts from Islam to attend there, as I explain below.

“Cathedral’s Consecration in Bahrain Signals Latest Advance in Religious Tolerance,” by Edward Pentin, National Catholic Register, December 17, 2021:

VATICAN CITY — The consecration of the first cathedral in the Kingdom of Bahrain marks the latest advance in religious tolerance in the tightly controlled Islamic-majority region, although the number of churches in the Arab nation continues to be few, despite a burgeoning immigrant Catholic population.

On Dec. 10, Cardinal Luis Tagle, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, consecrated the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia in Awali, in central Bahrain, describing the new church as “a living sign of God’s care for his flock.”

A day earlier, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain inaugurated the 95,000-square-foot, ark-shaped cathedral, which has a seating capacity of 2,300. The king donated the land to the Church in 2013, and the decision to build the church there was begun on Feb. 11 that year — the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Construction began in 2018.

The new cathedral is expected to be much in demand: Bahrain is home to about 80,000 Catholics, many of whom are immigrant workers from Asia, particularly the Philippines and India. But like many other countries in the Gulf, they suffer from a severe shortage of churches….

“The test of whether the Bahraini rulers are making a step forward or are just trying to make the country more attractive to foreign investment will come when we see whether or not they will allow native Bahrainis, including Muslims who are interested in Christianity, to attend,” Robert Spencer, director of the organization Jihad Watch, a group that monitors Islamic extremism, told the Register.

“A church for the expatriate Catholics from the Philippines and India is a kind gesture, but it doesn’t have any larger significance unless the native Christians and converts to the faith are allowed in,” he said….

This week, a new church was consecrated — the first in the Al Dhafra region of the UAE, about 150 miles west of Abu Dhabi. The Church of St. John the Baptist in Ruwais was built on land donated by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and its first Mass was celebrated Dec. 17.

But will such initiatives ever extend to Saudi Arabia? One long-running question has been whether the Islamic kingdom, the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad that officially bars Christianity from being practiced anywhere on its territory (Catholic liturgies take place in secret), will eventually relax its restrictions to allow at least one church to be built in the country.

Spencer was more pessimistic about progress when it comes to the Saudi kingdom.

“It is extraordinarily unlikely that there will ever be a church built in Saudi Arabia, as there is a tradition in which Islam’s prophet Muhammad is depicted as saying that he will expel all the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula,” he said.

“The Saudi regime takes this very seriously; it is the root of their refusal to allow any non-Muslim religious observance. It is unlikely that the Saudis would ever contravene the prohibition attributed to Muhammad, as they would likely be overthrown if they did.”…

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