'Dream come true': Arab Catholics in Bahrain speak of Pope’s visit

The small community has deep connections that date back generations in the island kingdom

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When Hala Fayez distributes communion at a public Mass led by Pope Francis in Bahrain, it will be an emotionally charged moment for the parliamentarian.

Ms Fayez belongs to a small Arab Catholic community, who are Bahraini citizens and deeply connected to the history of the tiny Gulf island that their parents and grandparents called home.

She was only 6 months old when her doctor father and mother moved from Egypt to put down roots in Bahrain.

“It’s a dream come true. We have been hoping for this visit for quite some time,” Ms Fayez, 60, a member of the Shura Council, the country’s upper house of Parliament, told The National.

“The Pope is close to our hearts. People go to Rome to see Mass, so to be in Bahrain when the Pope will celebrate the Mass is extraordinary and historic.”

The Pope is close to our hearts, so to be in Bahrain when the Pope will celebrate the Mass is extraordinary
Hala Fayez, a Bahraini Christian and member of the country's shura council

Voice in government

Ms Fayez is one of 300 Eucharist ministers — lay people who have been selected to distribute communion to thousands at the Papal Mass on November 5 in Manama.

It will be the second time ever that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church has visited the Arabian Peninsula — the first was to the UAE in 2019.

Bahraini Catholics, mainly of Arab origin, form about 1 per cent of the 1.7 million total population and are active in their parishes.

In total, there are about 80,000 Catholics in the country, many from countries including India, Philippines, France and Italy.

For Catholics in the small Gulf state, it is a moment of great pride to host the Pope, affirm their faith and promote a country that has allowed them to practise their religion.

Ms Fayez worked in several sectors, from oil to ports and Customs, before being appointed by Bahrain’s King Hamad to the Shura Council in 2010.

She has retained her position for 12 years in the 40-strong upper house that also includes a Jewish member of Parliament.

“Bahraini Christians are originally from various backgrounds in the Middle East, from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq,” she said.

“In the Shura Council you will find lawyers, doctors, businessmen and women and people from various religions.

“There are a lot of nationalities in Bahrain and it’s unique because you get to work with all these communities.”

The country also boasts of 19 churches, a Jewish synagogue and a 200-year-old Hindu temple.

To Bahrainis, this representation is a powerful signal of allowing different voices to be heard.

“People will not ask you, where do you come from or what is your background,” Ms Fayez said.

“This is unique in Bahrain, you don’t see that in other countries and I really appreciate this.

“My Muslim friends and officials do come to the church to celebrate Christmas Mass.”

Displaying a united front of coexistence is crucial to a country keen to show how different communities have thrived.

They aim to send a message that the nation believes in interfaith dialogue.

“We are really eager to have the Pope in Bahrain,” Ms Fayez said.

“It sends a message all over the world not only regionally that Bahrain is a peaceful country.

“We are living a life of interfaith coexistence with different religions not only Christianity.”

Grandson of the church builder

Catholics are being asked by friends from other communities for tickets for the public Mass which will be held at the Bahrain National Stadium, on day three of the Pope’s visit.

Tickets are limited with the stadium capacity of 28,000 and several thousands booking their spot from overseas.

“I have never had my non-Christian friends call me asking to go to church,” said Sameer Uchi, a businessman who owns several media companies.

“They are excited like we are. My friends and colleagues see the Pope not just as a Christian but they see a historical figure coming to the country and they want to be part of the event.”

Sameer Uchi, 51, is the grandson of an Iraqi building contractor appointed to construct the Sacred Heart Church in Manama, the Gulf’s first Roman Catholic church, in 1939.

A builder from Baghdad, Salman Uchi later built St Christopher’s Cathedral in Manama, which is an Anglican church, and royal palaces.

The younger Mr Uchi spends hours looking through yellowed and frayed books that record the buildings his grandfather constructed.

“Having my family play such an important role is part of my heritage and makes it really memorable,” he said.

“My family is a part of the country’s history. My grandfather built churches, palaces and houses during the reign of the current king’s grandfather.

“To have such an important figure like the Pope come here is recognising the country, its people, citizens, both Christians and non-Christians.

“It gives a feeling of relevance and importance.”

With his mother Najla, Mr Uchi leafs through old photographs and books with information about the professions of people who lived in the country in the 1930s.

They will be at the public Mass and have been asked to take the Papal gold medal awarded to Mr Uchi's grandfather for constructing the Gulf’s first church.

The Pope’s visit comes a month before the country will sparkle with lights for National Day on December 16, followed by Christmas festivities.

It is a time the country celebrates together, Mr Uchi said.

“In Bahrain people from different religions visit the church, mosque, temple or synagogue,” he said.

“We visit places of worship like it’s our own when there is an occasion whether good or unfortunate, for marriages or deaths.

“We have seen our parents doing this and we also see the leaders, Royal family members visit places of worship.”

Interlinked stories

For Elie Flouty, a French citizen of Lebanese origin, the stories of Bahrain’s Catholic residents are inextricably connected to the history of the country.

A consultant with the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, he has worked in Bahrain for more than a decade.

“The Pope’s visit is the fruit of the story of Bahrain,” he said.

“Whether you are Buddhist or Christian, you will feel this is your place because you can live your life and practice your beliefs.”

Mass is held in several languages ― English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, Konkani, Tamil and Malayalam ― to serve the needs of a diverse congregation.

“I sometimes attend an Arabic mass or French one. I like that I can choose. People are shocked when they know there were Christians here centuries before.”

Archaeological excavations carried out since 2019 show a Christian presence dating back to the 6th and 8th century.

Mr Flouty said this tied to the Christian root of village names and Byzantine traces in local music called fjiri, traditionally performed by pearl divers and crews.

“The name of the village Al Dair is Arabic for monastery or convent, showing the Christian past,” he said.

“You can see this in local music, fjiri, where experts have said the lyrics may be different but it sounds like orthodox Byzantine music.

“So, the story of Bahrain is related to people who lived here, among them Christians way back in the 6th and 7th century.”

During the coming visit of the Pope, the country aims to show its diversity.

“We learn here that that we can be different,” he said.

“Difference is the richness of the place. We can accept people as they are and you can come here and live your beliefs.”

Updated: October 31, 2022, 3:00 AM