Bishop Camillo Ballin, an Italian-born missionary, heads the Catholic Vicariate of Northern Arabia. He is overseeing the first-ever building of a new cathedral in Bahrain, on land given to the Church by Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah.
The $28 million cathedral, named Our Lady of Arabia, will serve an estimated 2.5 million Catholics, the great majority of them foreign guest workers, in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The new structure will be a focal point for the territory's 10 parishes and more than 100 underground communities.
Particularly in Saudi Arabia, the public practice of Christianity on the Arabian peninsula is severely restricted, mostly limited to the grounds of foreign embassies and private homes.
Priests are generally not allowed to appear in public dressed in clerical garb and conversions of Muslims to Christianity are strictly forbidden, while Christians are banned from marrying Muslim women.
The building of the new cathedral signals a breakthrough in church-state relations and is also testimony to what the prelate describes as "the constantly increasing number of Catholics in the region".
Currently only five formally designated churches serve the 880,000 square miles that make up the Vicariate. Bishop Ballin spoke with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need on the final day of his two-week trip to the US to raise awareness of the cathedral project.
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Aid to the Church in Need: Do you consider your Vicariate to be mission territory?
Bishop Ballin: "Mission territory" implies evangelising animists, converting them to Christianity. We are not among animists but among Muslims and Hindus. Christians comprise some 10 per cent of the population; and obviously the great majority is not Christian. But we cannot evangelise as it is understood in other countries of the world. We can only witness to the bounty and love of God through our daily life. The best place for this kind of witness is the school.
What is the composition of the Catholic community?
They come from many countries. The majority are from India and the Philippines. Others come from some of the Arab countries, from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Korea, Europe, etc. Especially many workers from Asia are completely alone.
Many were not able to bring their families with them. As a result there are problems of too much solitude, of isolation, and of home sickness. On the other hand, solitude pushes them to find consolation and peace in the Lord, so we have a relatively high percentage of Mass attendance, which stands at between 30 and 35 percent.
But we must ask ourselves why the others don't come to church! Part of the reason is that work schedules make things difficult.
How many priests and religious work with you?
We have 50 priests and two permanent deacons. Except for six or seven pastors, all priests are religious, mostly Capuchins, because the pastoral care of the Gulf has been entrusted to them by the Holy See.
How visible and active is your church in the local community?
Our church is very visible, even though the new churches don't have a cross on the outside. Thousands and thousands of people coming to the church cannot be invisible. We don't have social engagements; our presence is more based on the personal witness of a good Christian life.
What is your biggest challenge as a bishop? What are the church's biggest needs?
We have many nationalities and there are faithful belonging to almost all of the various eastern and oriental Catholic rites. It is not easy to make of all these different communities a single Catholic Church.
There is a risk of having too many churches near each other, without truly being that one Catholic church, even as, of course, we respect all the rites. For example, churches in Kuwait typically celebrate the liturgy according to five different rites and in 13 languages. It is a logistical challenge to accommodate all the various communities within a single building.
The difficulties of being a Christian in the Middle East have been making a lot of headlines. What are the circumstances in your Vicariate?
No government in the Gulf has a policy of forced conversion from Christianity to Islam. There are, however, some zealous individuals.
Of course, it is forbidden to convert from Islam to Christianity. But the situation in the Gulf is radically different from the challenges faced by Christians in some countries of the Middle East. In the Gulf there are no local Christians, except very few in Kuwait and Bahrain and all Christians have to leave when they reach age 60, except those able to open their own business, under the sponsorship of a local person.
In other countries of the Middle East Christians are locals, like the other inhabitants. Christians in the Gulf are not citizens of the country where they are working; they are migrants. Even their children have to leave the Gulf when it's time for them to go to college.
Do you think the Church is persecuted, harassed or hindered in its work in the Gulf region?
No, absolutely not. Only in some countries [are] we are in extreme need of more space. If something dramatic would happen during our services, we could have hundreds of dead.
Many Christians think there should be reciprocity between Christianity and Islam The reasoning goes, as tolerance is shown for Muslims in Western countries, the Catholic Church should insist on equal rights for Christians in Muslim countries. Do you agree?
We have to ask authorities to grant us more space for our believers. However, we should not forget that our purpose is only to do good for all people, regardless any compensation from them.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia met in the Vatican with Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, which was considered a tremendous breakthrough. What are the prospects for eventual diplomatic relations between the Kingdom and the Holy See?
I don't have particular information about this. This concerns the nuncio and the Holy See. I know that Saudi Arabia would like to have diplomatic relations with the Vatican, but many points have to be clarified before this can happen.
Do Catholics, Christians in general, have an influence on the political, social and cultural life in the Gulf region?
Our faithful are migrants and most of them have very low-level jobs. However, they contribute very much to the good of the country through their daily work. If these migrants leave the Gulf, the Gulf countries would be the worse for it.
Does the Church provide education and social services for non-Christians?
Our schools are open to all. In fact, the majority of our students are non-Christians. Social services are provided by many doctors and the many thousands of nurses (males and female) who work in the region's hospitals. Of course, they do not work directly for the Church, but their presence in the society is very important.
Your website says that the Church is "trusted by governments". What does this mean concretely?
Our church is officially recognised by the various governments. We are not a private group or a hidden sect. We are a Church whose presence is recognised by the governments and I always tell the country's leadership that they have nothing to fear from the Catholic Church, which always will respect their country's faith, culture and traditions.
Foreign workers are under a great deal of pressure in many Middle Eastern countries, especially Saudi Arabia, where many illegal immigrants are being expelled. Has the church been able to ease their circumstances?
The Church cannot do anything for those who are here illegally. What happens normally is that people come here for a job, then, for any number of reasons, they lose the job and as a result of that even their residence permit. So, they become illegal. Our role is to help, even financially, people who suddenly lose their job and have a family to feed, children who have to finish their school year, etc.
How did the project of the new cathedral get started?
The great number of Catholics in Bahrain obliged me to ask the king for land. The church that we have in Manama is too small. I asked the king for a piece of land in the south of the country and he granted the request immediately. Since the bishop is in Bahrain, this new church will be the cathedral of the Vicariate of Northern Arabia and it will be dedicated to Our Lady of Arabia, patroness of the Gulf.
What moved the King of Bahrain to give you the land?
Of course, I don't know his personal reasons, but I think he wanted to prove that Bahrain is a country open to all. In fact, there are Catholics and even Jews who are members of the Council of the king! In this region, where fanaticism is strong in some countries, the example of the king of Bahrain should be considered a model of openness.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia is an enormously costly project are you not concerned that a backlash on the part of the Bahrain government, or a radical change in regime, could shut the initiative? Or worse, could the building not become the target of anti-Christian violence?
The problems in Bahrain are not between Christians and Muslims but among Muslims themselves, between Shiites and Sunnis. I trust in the good will of the people of Bahrain.
I have been in Bahrain for two years now, and never have I perceived any negative attitudes toward Christians. In Bahrain, as well as in Kuwait and Qatar, I move about in my cassock and with my pectoral cross. There never have been problems. On the contrary, I am very much respected. The Catholic Church is known to all as one that respects all and helps all.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. Website: www.aidtochurch.org
(Reprinted from Zenit.org)