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The unsuspected dynamism of Catholics in the Persian Gulf

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bahrainpapalvisit.org

Cyprien Viet - published on 02/16/23

The new Vicar Apostolic of Northern Arabia, Bishop Berardi, talks about the growing visibility of Christian communities in the Gulf countries.

On January 28, 2023, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Aldo Berardi as the new Vicar Apostolic of Northern Arabia. A French Trinitarian priest of Italian origins, Father Berardi will be ordained a Bishop on March 18 in Bahrain. He will be taking charge of one of the largest and most complex dioceses in the world, spanning four countries.

After the death of the previous Vicar, Bishop Camillo Ballin, in 2020, the Swiss Capuchin Paul Hinder served as the interim Apostolic Administrator. 

A few weeks before Bishop Berardi takes office, he spoke to I.MEDIA about his missionary experience in the Persian Gulf. He talked about the growing visibility of Christian communities in the region, encouraged by Pope Francis’ visits to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which have improved the Muslim population’s view of the contribution of Christians to the development of these countries.

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What was your experience in the Gulf before this episcopal appointment?

Berardi: I left Cerfroid (France), where the house of origin of the Trinitarian Order is, in 1998 to go to Cairo. There I studied Islamology and Arabic with the aim of going to Sudan. This project did not materialize, but we took care of a center for Sudanese refugees in Egypt, named after Saint Josephine Bakhita. Starting in 2003, I began making short trips to the Persian Gulf until 2006, when I decided to dedicate myself to this area full time. I took care of the expatriates and the scattered communities, which had no resident priest and no access to the sacraments.

It was not an ordinary parish, and we experienced an underground Church, restricted in its external expressions, but alive. It was a somewhat neglected area, but working with Bishop Camillo Ballin we were able to accompany these communities, as we were based in Bahrain.

The General Chapter of the Trinitarian Order authorized this new experience. We had had a historical presence in North Africa and the Middle East, but not in the Gulf. This was in keeping with our long tradition of helping Christian communities in difficulty. I continued this mission until I was called back to Rome as vicar general of the Trinitarian Order in 2019.

What are the contours of this Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which constitutes one of the largest ecclesiastical circumscriptions in the world?

First of all, it must be clarified that we speak of an “apostolic vicariate” when a diocese is not fully formed and established, which is the case here since the local population is not Christian. As Vicar Apostolic, I will be the ‘Vicar of the Apostle,’ that is, the Vicar of the Pope.

The Arabian Peninsula is divided into two vicariates: the southern one includes the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and the Sultanate of Oman; the northern one includes Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

This represents a total of four countries – with all the difficulties of visas and air travel – and a population of 40 million inhabitants, including 2.5 million Catholics. In most cases, they are expatriates, not migrants. They are not expected to stay for life, as their presence is linked to a work contract limited in time.

What are the main differences between these four countries in their relationship with the minority Catholic population?

Most of these Catholics live in Saudi Arabia, where they form a Church without buildings. In this Kingdom, there is neither religious freedom nor freedom of worship, which are two different things. Freedom of worship allows Christians to have their own churches, but without any external activity, whereas religious freedom implies the possibility of changing religion.

The other three countries guarantee some form of freedom of worship. The vicariate’s cathedral was once in Kuwait, where there are currently four parishes. But relations are not easy with the authorities, with strong fundamentalist pressure.

In Qatar, the Catholic parish of Our Lady of the Rosary has existed since 2006, and was built with the support of the French Embassy. Nineteenth-century French stained glass windows were even brought in thanks to a diplomatic passport. Other churches are under construction for the Maronites and the Syro-Malabars. There are also churches for the Orthodox and the Protestants. There are limitations, a caution to be maintained, but Christian life has been able to develop, especially around the workers who were much talked about during the recent World Cup.

Bahrain is a Sunni monarchy in a country with a Shiite majority, with a long-standing Christian presence: the Sacred Heart parish was founded more than 80 years ago. In addition to this, there is now the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, built in the desert but with an urbanization that is developing around it. And of these four countries, only Bahrain theoretically allows some form of religious freedom, although any conversion from Islam to Christianity would be frowned upon.

Is your diocese only dedicated to Latin Catholics, or does it also concern Eastern Churches in communion with Rome?

The vicariate has jurisdiction over Catholics of all denominations: Latins, Maronites, Melkites, Syro-Malabars, Syro-Malankars… Having only one Bishop allows the authorities to better identify their interlocutor.

We currently have only six incardinated priests, but in total about 50 priests are at the service of these communities, including Capuchins, Salesians, and Trinitarians. Missionaries of the Institute of the Incarnate Word arrived recently, and there are two female congregations: the Sisters of the Apostolic Carmel, from India, who are in Bahrain and Kuwait, and the Sisters of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, from Lebanon, who are in Kuwait. Other presences are being studied.

The various local Churches provide us with priests to assist their faithful, many of whom come from India and the Philippines. For now, the vicariate has 11 parishes.

Saudi Arabia is a special case, as there are no officially recognized parishes. Does the opening to Western tourism represent an opportunity for the Church as well?

There is a desire for openness. The country wants to get away from its dependence on oil and diversify its resources. There is a lot of potential for tourism, with trekking in the desert, fabulous walks, archaeological sites, oases, scuba diving in the Red Sea… But how far can we go while respecting local law, Muslim law? There is friction in some circles, freedom of worship is not yet established, but the country no longer wants to focus exclusively on “halal” tourism, linked to the pilgrimage to Mecca. Things will therefore evolve, even if an old guard remains reluctant.

Did the visit of French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who came to Saudi Arabia in 2018 for his last trip as president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, change things?

Yes, because it was the first visit of a Cardinal from Rome to Saudi Arabia and he was able to meet the King in person. Cardinal Tauran, with his moral authority and personality, was able to say things that no Western ambassador dares to say. He spoke directly about freedom of worship. This was a great moment for the country and the region. He even met many Christians, in the gardens of the British embassy, thanks to the kindness of the British ambassador who was himself a Muslim, and he was very moved.

At present, there are occasional contacts between Saudi Arabia and the Holy See, in various circumstances. Muslims respect believers: what they do not understand is atheism and secularism, but they have respect for the “men of God” and the hierarchy. We hope that these contacts will bear fruit.

Have Pope Francis’ trips to Abu Dhabi in 2019 and Bahrain in 2022 had an impact on the visibility of Christians in the Gulf countries?

Yes, because the visit of a religious leader is always important … and it creates some rivalry between states! In the Emirates, there is a real impetus, especially with this project of a “House of Abraham” which brings together the three monotheistic religions. The Abu Dhabi document will influence these countries’ societies in the long term, especially in changing school curricula that had a negative view of non-Muslims. The countries must readjust, because the Internet and satellite television are causing a transformation of consciousness.

In Bahrain there is a real openness that is also the fruit of the friendship between the King and the former Bishop who died in 2020, Camillo Ballin. This has allowed the construction of the cathedral. There is a desire for greater collaboration that must be accompanied.

The Pope’s visit to Bahrain was a great event for the local Christian community but also for the population as a whole. The strong Christian presence is now associated with the construction and development of the country. This has highlighted the work of these people who suffer from their displacement and sometimes difficult working conditions.

The living conditions of workers and the defense of their rights are also part of the challenges of the pastoral accompaniment carried out by the local Church then?

The situation varies from country to country, some are more liberal than others. For us, it is difficult to find the balance between defending the rights of workers and using the tact needed with regard to the authorities, in order to maintain a Christian presence. However, there is great solidarity among Christians, with aid for families or support programs for finding jobs.

There is also great emotional misery among these workers, who are often single or at least “geographically single,” as they are separated from their families for sometimes very long periods. This has repercussions on their spouses, on their children, whom the parents may not see growing up, even if current technologies make it possible to maintain better links. In these particular situations, for Catholics, the Church offers a familial setting, it becomes in a way “the village church,” which maintains a sense of community.

Are the increased archaeological excavations, which are rediscovering an ancient Christian presence in the Arabian Peninsula, helping to make Christianity in the Gulf better known?

This archaeological research is a blessing. It has been going on for a long time, but was reserved for circles of initiates. Now, these populations are interested in their past, in the origin of the tribes, of the Arabic language, and no longer bring everything back to the birth of Islam and considering that everything that existed before was part of the “great darkness.”

The research allows us to rediscover a pre-Islamic world with pagan tribes but also Judaizing tribes and Christianized tribes. We find sites of Christian settlement, especially on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, with ancient monasteries, ancient churches, cathedrals. There were echoes of these Christian communities in certain accounts of the Prophet Muhammad, but they are now being rediscovered and highlighted.

France plays a fundamental role in this research, with its scientific skills and its specialists in Arabic, in Sabaean… The Nabatean site of Al-‘Ula, in the province of Medina, in Saudi Arabia, was excavated by Frenchmen who were able to organize research in Yemen as well. It is beautiful to see these archaeologists journeying through the deserts and the mountains, with their hats, to try to find inscriptions, epigraphs… When they find Christian prayers, it is moving! They find crosses, traces of a Christian life before Islam.

For the Gulf countries it is also important and interesting to supervise this research in order to understand the origin of Islam and the development of the Arabic language. I find this exciting, because one might think that there is nothing in these deserts. But on the contrary, there are many things! For example, there were bishoprics, notably in Bahrain. This is where the missionaries who went to India and China passed through.

There are also local saints, such as Saint Arethas and his companions, martyred by the Jewish king of Yemen in 523. There are inscriptions in the desert referring to a Christian Empire in the south of the Peninsula. By being expelled, these Christian tribes went on to fertilize Iraq. This small piece of desert is therefore the bearer of a rich and fascinating history!

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