Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia: Symbol of Unity and Coexistence in Bahrain

The Pilgrimage Character of the Church of Bahrain

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

Dedicated to Our Lady of Arabia, the largest Catholic church in the Persian Gulf is located in Awali, Bahrain, and serves as the seat of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia. It was inaugurated on December 9, 2021, by Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, king of Bahrain, following the donation – made by him eight years earlier – of 9,000 square meters of land intended for its implementation.

Despite having a unique tradition of tolerance between different religions, sects and races – native Christian, Jewish and Hindu communities coexist in the kingdom – this construction further exacerbated the climate of tension in a country divided between different Muslim factions. More than 70 radical clerics rushed to sign a petition declaring the construction of a Catholic temple as haram (impure). The government, without hesitation, ordered the transfer of the most prominent of these clerics, Sheikh Adel Hassan al-Hamad, to a less important mosque, but protests from his supporters forced authorities to reverse that order. Even so, several clashes continued over 19 months, during which 50 people perished.

A missionary in Bahrain since 2013, Saji Thomas is the current rector of this church also known as the “Cathedral of the Desert”, which, in addition to its predominantly religious character, is a place of welcome and sharing for thousands of people, especially immigrants. Three other priests accompany the pastoral work of this Capuchin friar, of Indian nationality, who arrived in Bahrain at the end of 2013 at the request of his religious superiors. Since then, this has been – in his words – “a wonderful and enriching experience”, as every day he meets hundreds of people of different nationalities, cultures and languages with whom he “shares the love of Christ”.

As rector of the Cathedral, he not only provides pastoral care but also administers the sacraments and is available to respond to everyone’s needs. He also serves the many tourists who visit the cathedral, explaining to them the meaning and importance of this sacred place. The greatest symbol of freedom and religious coexistence, the most diverse spiritual activities, retreats, training courses and, above all – since the inauguration on October 24, 2023, by Dom Aldo Berardi, Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia, of the Year Jubilee of Saint Aretha and Companion Martyrs, it is expected, will be the scene of many pilgrimages.

Every day, hundreds of people attend masses celebrated in different rites – Latin, Maronite, Syro Malabar and Syro Malankara – and in different languages: English, Arabic, Tagalog, Malayalam and Konkani. Awali is a small municipality founded in the 1930s by the Bahrain Petroleum Company, and is mainly inhabited by workers of various nationalities, whose skills were necessary for the installation and operation of the Sitrah refinery.

Speaking to Vatican News, Father Saji Thomas draws attention to the “pilgrim” character of the Church of Bahrain, a “transitional church” in which priests, nuns and bishops come predominantly from other countries; also reflecting on the current socioeconomic context of its faithful. The global economy faces major challenges that are greatly affecting people. More and more people are losing their jobs or not being paid for the activities they perform, which is why they find it extremely difficult to manage their lives.

“Furthermore,” explains the Capuchin, “the migration process, in which everyone seeking a better life is involved, causes numerous problems. Unscrupulous agencies offer their victims prospects of well-paid employment, but when they arrive here, they cannot find work of any kind, leaving them in a very complicated situation as they do not even have the money to return home”.

Originally from Vadakkand, in Kerala, South India, Father Saji Thomas is the second of three brothers. He attended local schools and as soon as he came into contact with the Capuchins, he was so fascinated by their charisma that, after finishing his studies, he decided to embark on the path of religious life. After his ordination, he missioned for twelve years in the states of Assam and Meghalaya, in northeastern India, before heading to the Persian Gulf.

During his historic visit to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, on November 4, 2022, Pope Francis expressed his gratitude to the people of Bahrain “for the care given to the country’s Catholic community”. The Holy Father took the opportunity to address the issue of unity in diversity within the Christian community and emphasized the importance of “praise and adoration” as a factor of unity among Christians. This visit, the first by a Pope to Bahrain, signaled the Catholic Church’s commitment to interreligious dialogue and its desire to promote greater unity within the Christian community.