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Bahrain's invite to Pope Francis is a power-balancing act

The island nation grants freedom of religion without breaching the fundamentals of Islam

Bahrain's invite to Pope Francis is a power-balancing act

Pope Francis holds a private audience with Sheikh Kahlid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, special envoy of His Majesty the King of Bahrain, at the Vatican on Nov. 25. (Photo: AFP/Vatican Media)

The Catholic Church in Bahrain, under the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, is set for a major event. The tiny nation of 1.41 million wants Pope Francis to visit when it consecrates a cathedral on Dec. 10.

The pope was invited to pay a visit to the kingdom by King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa when his special envoy, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, met the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin at the Vatican on Nov. 25.

By inviting the pope, the monarch is stressing the importance of interfaith dialogue and understanding between different cultures and civilizations.

The monarch has endorsed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 4, 2019, by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al Tayyeb, the grand imam of Al Azhar.

According to the official Bahraini news agency, the pope expressed "sincere thanks" to the monarch for "the kind invitation to visit the kingdom he loves and cherishes."

After quelling the 2011 uprising by the Shias, the Bahraini government is trying to spread its wings further in the global arena.

Citing the threat from Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, Bahrain has sought refuge under the US security umbrella, which also includes Saudi Arabia and Israel

Bahrain, an archipelago of 33 islands on the west coast of the Persian Gulf, is a Sunni kingdom with Shias forming at least half the population. The country, which was separated from Iran by a controversial referendum in 1970, has normalized ties with Israel, Iran’s nemesis.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid recently inaugurated Israel’s embassy in the capital Manama during a historic visit to Bahrain that crossed the Islamic world’s red lines by fostering mutual ties under the pretext of threats from Iran.

Citing the threat from Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, Bahrain has sought refuge under the US security umbrella, which also includes Saudi Arabia and Israel. To prevent Iran from extending its influence and exporting its revolutionary ideology to the island nation, Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s fifth fleet at a logistical and security base.

In August 2020, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates officially normalized their relationship with Israel in the US-brokered Abraham Accords, which has changed the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of the Jewish nation.

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Early in November, Bahrain conducted a five-day joint naval training exercise in the Red Sea along with the United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. The Red Sea connects the Gulf of Aden to the Suez Canal, making it a key shipping route, especially for oil tankers.

“Maritime collaboration helps safeguard freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade, which are essential to regional security and stability,” Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of the US Naval Forces Central Command, said in a statement.

As an Islamic-majority country, Bahrain is relatively religiously tolerant compared with its neighbors in the Persian Gulf due to its prominence in banking and trade.

While Bahrain’s constitution officially grants freedom of religion, a provision also states that this freedom cannot violate established customs, policy or morals, which are influenced by Islam.

The cathedral, located in the municipality of Awali, mainly inhabited by immigrant workers employed in oil refineries, will be consecrated by Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle

Most Christians in Bahrain trace their roots to Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and Jordan. The Christian community constitutes around one percent of the population, but the number of Christians from other nationalities, living and working in Bahrain, is more than 100,000, mostly Asians from the Philippines and India.

On Dec. 10, the kingdom will consecrate its largest cathedral, Our Lady of Arabia, which will serve as one of the main Catholic churches of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia of which Bahrain is a part along with Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

The cathedral, located in the municipality of Awali, mainly inhabited by immigrant workers employed in oil refineries, will be consecrated by Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, according to pontifical news agency Fides.

The cathedral, which can accommodate 2,300 people, has been built on land of 9,000 square meters donated by the monarch of Bahrain to the apostolic vicariate.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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