The Arabian Gulf’s largest Roman Catholic church has opened in Bahrain.
Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral, which can seat at least 2,300 people, is located in a desert town about 20 kilometres south of the capital, Manama.
The modernist church with an octagonal dome, several tiers of seating, two chapels and 800-capacity auditorium is set to become a focal point for Bahrain’s 80,000 Catholics and an architectural landmark.
Bahrain and papal flags fluttered in the roads, while the sound of hymns drifted out from the cathedral’s pews into the desert air ahead of the opening.
“It is a wonderful feeling,” said Bishop Paul Hinder, who oversees the Catholic Vicariate, or jurisdiction, of northern Arabia that encompasses Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
“We are happy to have such a wonderful and extraordinary building that will be an architectural highlight in Bahrain,” said Bishop Hinder. “We are grateful.”
Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the King of Bahrain, granted the 9,000 square metre plot of land eight years ago and his representative, Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad Al Khalifa, inaugurated the church on Thursday.
It is the culmination of years of work involving the country’s rulers, Church figures, the wider Roman Catholic community in Bahrain and scores of others from architects to builders. It also speaks to a rich history of tolerance in Bahrain for other religions that stretches back centuries.
Our Lady of Arabia - named after the patroness of the vicariate of northern Arabia - can be seen for kilometres around, and its design is striking. It resembles a tent in which the Prophet Moses met his people, as described in the Old Testament, and is topped with an octagonal dome under which most of the congregation will sit for mass.
The grey walls are made with pietra serena stone that is only produced in Florence. On the walls are a series of icons portraying scenes such as the death and resurrection of Jesus, crafted with materials including 24 carat gold shipped from Italy. Light constantly floods the church from different angles.
“I feel joy and full of emotion,” said the cathedral’s Italian architect, Mattia Del Prete, looking at his work years after his team won the global competition to design it.
“The most fundamental aspect of the whole project is the light. At every time in the day, it changes the colour and atmosphere.”
The opening is a moment of celebration for Bahrain’s Catholics, but also one to express deep gratitude to their host country. Arabia is a place where, for centuries, Islam has prevailed over Christianity. But Bahrain has long allowed people of other faiths, from Judaism to Hindu, to worship in peace. A Hindu temple was established in Bahrain about 200 years ago, while in the 19th Century, an American mission was allowed to open a church there.
“It was not really an easy question for a ruler who was very conservative, very Muslim, Arab,” said Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, chairman of the board of trustees of King Hamad Global Centre of Peaceful Coexistence. “I’m sure he had a lot of opposition but he overcame that. He foresaw the future.”
By the 1930s, Bahrain has become the commercial centre of the Arabian Gulf on the back of the oil boom. The Gulf’s first Roman Catholic church - The Sacred Heart Church – opened in Manama in 1939 as more workers arrived. The new cathedral is close to Awali, a small town in the centre of the country that has long hosted expatriate workers dating back to the oil days. From the church compound, oil heads can still be seen pumping.
Today, Bahrain’s Catholics are chiefly working migrants from dozens of countries, but mainly the Philippines and India. Bahrain is also one of the few GCC countries to have a local Christian population – largely Roman Catholic - of about 1,000. The majority of these were originally Arab Christians from the Middle East and immigrated to Bahrain from the 1930s to 1950s and now hold Bahraini citizenship.
“Tolerance is important but not only tolerance,” said Bishop Hinder. “It needs entering into an understanding of each other. That doesn’t mean I have to convert to the other religion but I have to have a proper understanding and get rid of all the prejudices. It is an ongoing process and never finished.”
Relations between Bahrain and the Vatican have advanced in recent years. King Hamad presented a model of the cathedral to Pope Francis in 2014 and he has also invited the Pontiff to visit the country.
King Hamad also endorsed the Document on Human Fraternity, signed in Abu Dhabi by the Pontiff and Dr Ahmed El Tayeb, grand imam of the Al Azhar in 2019 that aims to bring people together in the spirit of respect and tolerance.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, only a small number of people attended the opening. The cathedral will be consecrated – meaning blessed and ready for services – on Friday.
“The importance of this cathedral is not just the history but also the size,” said Sheikh Khalid. “It is really an achievement for Bahrain. It will encourage others who would like to come and live in Bahrain. It means you are welcome.”
Hanging outside the cathedral on Thursday were posters showing the construction with the tagline “journey towards a dream”. On Thursday, that dream came true.