The King of Bahrain will tomorrow (Thursday, 9th December) take centre stage at events climaxing with the official opening of a cathedral built to serve the growing Christian population across the Arabian Peninsula.
King Hamad bin Isa bin Saman Al Khalifa donated a 9,000-square-metre plot on which now stands the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, Patroness of the Arabian Gulf, and tomorrow he will inaugurate the complex, complete with pastoral centre, offices and bishop’s house.
Seven years in the making, and constructed with the backing of Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the cathedral will be consecrated on Friday (10th December) by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the Vatican Prefect of the Congregation of the Peoples.
Seen as a significant step forward in Church-state relations, the cathedral, erected south of the Bahrain capital Manama, was conceived in response to the increasing Catholic population of the region – now estimated at 2.5 million.
Father Saji Thomas, project leader and parish priest of the cathedral, said: “The people are very enthusiastic and joyful… waiting for the historical moment of the inauguration and blessing of the cathedral.”
He highlighted the influx of Catholics and others coming from as far as Latin America and south-east Asia, to take up work in the Arabian Peninsula.
Until now, Bahrain has only had one church in the capital and a chapel in the suburbs – with 90,000 Catholics, 25 weekend Masses had to be celebrated in the parish from Friday through to Sunday.
The cathedral in Awali has a seating capacity of 2,300, with two chapels and two other large rooms with places for confession.
Speaking ahead of the complex’s inauguration tomorrow by King Hamad, Father Thomas described the cathedral as “a model of religious harmony, a sign of the tolerance of the Kingdom of Bahrain and a great example of peaceful coexistence to the world”.
The complex was the brainchild of Bishop Camilo Ballin, Vicar Apostolic of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, who died in April 2020.
Paying tribute to Bishop Ballin, Regina Lynch, ACN director of projects, said: “He showed a big determination at the time to overcome a huge number of challenges.
“Since the ceremony of the laying of the first stone on 31st May 2014, it’s been… hard work and lots of trials. I’m sure that Monsignor Ballin is celebrating with us in heaven.”
Stressing the importance of the cathedral for the faithful in the region, Ms Lynch said: “The Christians in Bahrain have a very difficult life, not because of the government but because many have left their own country, their families and friends.
“So they suffer a lot and need special spiritual formation to help them to remain what they are, otherwise they are lost.”