Bahrain has inaugurated the largest Catholic Church in the Arabian Peninsula, the first new cathedral to be built in the region in 60 years.
The Cathedral of Mary Queen of Arabia was consecrated on Friday in Awali, 16 miles south of the country’s capital, Manama, with 1,400 people watching online due to coronavirus restrictions according to Catholic news service Crux.
Bahrain has ambitions of presenting itself as a centre of religious tolerance – as do other countries in the Persian Gulf, like the UAE – but human rights groups have criticised the ongoing mistreatment of the country’s majority Shia population.
The cathedral was built after King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa donated the land in 2013 to the Catholic community.
Of the 2.5 million Catholics in Northern Arabia, the vast majority are overseas workers from countries like India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Lebanon and Western countries.
But many others are critical of Bahrain’s treatment of its majority Shia population under its reigning Sunni monarchy. Bahrain also has no independent media, and was criticised by Amnesty International in 2020 for unfair trials of critics and protests.
The 2011 uprising in Bahrain sparked by the Arab Spring saw the government demolish 38 Shia mosques, and despite pledging to rebuild them all, the government has not yet done so.
“Every year there are instances where they pray on the land of these destroyed mosques and they end up being summoned and forced to sign pledges they won’t do it anymore,” says Salma Moussawi, Head of Legal Advocacy & Documentation from Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB).
Her colleague, Joelle Oneissi, added: “the mosques that have been rebuilt are mainly rebuilt by the community themselves. A lot of them are not being maintained properly. When it comes to the building of the cathedral, they’re abandoning other responsibilities in the name of pushing this tolerance.”
In 2016, a group of United Nations independent human rights experts expressed deep concerns at the “systematic harassment” of the Shia population, often targeted for “inciting hatred against the regime” and “illegal gathering”, which they viewed as “groundless accusations used to hide a deliberate targeting of Shias in the country.”
This August, ADHRB issued a report about how the government issued COVID-19 health measures two days before the holy month of Muharram began, in which Shia worshippers process the streets to mark the anniversary of the battle of Karbala where the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussain Ibn Ali was killed.
The restrictions included reducing the number of people allowed to take part in the processions, demanding citizens remove black flags from their roofs, and security personnel interrupting mourning processions to ask them to present ID.
Multiple summons were sent to mourners and reciters who attended processions, or who had raised flags above their homes.
“This has been happening since 2011,” explains Moussawi. “They have turned Ashura and Muharram into an opportunity to practice a policy of collective punishment against Shi’a individuals by restricting religion.”
At the same time, national basketball matches without COVID-19 restrictions were allowed to take place – as well as the Hindu “Onam” festival, which Bahrain’s Indian diaspora celebrate. The king’s son was pictured taking part in the festival amongst large crowds, none of whom wore masks or adhered to COVID-19 health measures.
The Bahraini government did not respond to requests for comment regarding ADHRB’s report, or its pledge to rebuild Shia mosques, prior to the publication of this article. But in a statement emailed over after the article was published, a government spokesperson said: “Religious pluralism is deeply embedded in the country’s social fabric and religious freedom is explicitly protected by the country’s constitution.
“All 30 unlicensed cabins and structures used for religious purposes, referred to in your inquiry have been regularised and re-built to the standards of other Muslim places of worship in Bahrain (over 1,456 mosques and 625 ma’atams), except for 3 which remain under study. Our commitment to preserving and maintaining places of worship and the freedom to practice religion freely is unwavering and will remain an enduring characteristic of Bahrain’s openness and an unconditional right for all citizens and residents.”
However, a report in 2020 submitted to the UNHCR by human rights experts contradicts this claim: “After the 2011 protests, 53 Shia mosques were damaged, and 23 were completely demolished. This is a direct discriminatory attack on the Baharna indigenous population. The government of Bahrain has explicitly stated that they will only rebuild sites that have the proper permits. However, some of the oldest mosques and religious sites from the Baharna indigenous population were built long before the construction permit process was enshrined in Bahraini law. Meanwhile, progress on the remaining reconstruction sites is stagnant.”
Elsewhere in the region, the UAE is building the country’s first Hindu temple, likely to be completed by 2023. In 2019, the country celebrated a Year of Tolerance, during which Pope Francis became the first pope in history to visit and perform mass in the Arabian Peninsula.
Synagogues are being built too. The Gulf has been opening to Jewish religious traditions since the Abraham Accords, a series of agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain which have normalised relations, took place.
In September, a recently renovated synagogue in Bahrain hosted the first public Jewish prayer services in the country since 1947, when Bahrain’s only synagogue was destroyed in clashes at the start of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include a statement from the Bahraini government sent after the article was published.