Bahrain church project cements Gulf region’s reputation for religious tolerance

Our Lady of Arabia is expected to open to the public in May. (Supplied)
Our Lady of Arabia is expected to open to the public in May. (Supplied)
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Updated 24 December 2020

Bahrain church project cements Gulf region’s reputation for religious tolerance

Bahrain church project cements Gulf region’s reputation for religious tolerance
  • Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, being built on a plot donated by King Hamad, is expected to open to the public in May 2021
  • Shape of the cathedral is meant to resemble a tent in which Prophet Moses is believed to have met with people

DUBAI: It all started when the monarch of Bahrain donated a plot of land to the kingdom’s Catholic community seven years ago. Officially taking matters a step further, in 2014 King Hamad Al-Khalifa met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, reassuring him of Bahrain’s commitment to coexistence and presenting him with a detailed three-foot-long model of a proposed cathedral and its surroundings.

Next year, Bahrain will inaugurate the largest Catholic cathedral in the Gulf region, the latest testament to its longstanding tradition of openness and tolerance.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, expected to open to the public in May, sits on a complex of approximately 9,000 square meters in the expatriate-populated municipality of Awali, located about 20 kilometers away from the capital Manama.

Aside from the cathedral, the palm tree-lined complex will feature a multipurpose building, a spacious courtyard, as well as a two-story parking area. How is it that this small, predominantly Muslim island nation — smaller in area than London — is building a significant monument to the Christian faith?




Cathedral sits on a complex of approximately 9,000 square meters in the expatriate-populated municipality of Awali. (Supplied)

Closely monitoring the cathedral’s construction is the Kerala-born priest Father Saji Thomas, who has served in Bahrain as part of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia for the last seven years.

Father Thomas took over this herculean architectural project after Italian Bishop Camillo Ballin’s sudden death in April. “I was left like a fish out of water,” Father Thomas told Arab News.

“It was a tough time for me, but since Bishop Camillo had told me how to go about with the cathedral, I later found it easy. I feel so proud to be a part of the construction project.”

Although the coronavirus pandemic affected building plans, 80 percent of the cathedral’s physical construction has been completed, he said. Designed to accommodate 2,300 congregants, the cathedral is a collaboration between the Bahraini firm Mohammed Jalal Contracting and a team of experienced architects and engineers from Italy.




King Al Khalifa presents Pope Francis with a model of the upcoming cathedral in 2014. ('A Brief History of Christianity in Bahrain' by Betsy Mathieson)

Father Thomas explained that the unique shape of the cathedral is meant to resemble a tent in which, according to the Old Testament, the prophet Moses met with people. The structure is topped with an octagonal dome — a geometric detail that is deeply symbolic and implemented in a number of churches around the world, such as the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna and Germany’s Aachen Cathedral.

In Christianity, the number 8 represents Resurrection and a new beginning. Its interior four walls and alter have a marble finishing, while the four corners of the cathedral contain four chapels and an area of elevators leading to the underground parking space.

Notably, one of the chapels reveals the patron saint of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia: Our Lady of Arabia – the crowned Virgin Mary holding a rosary and the Christ Child. Looking above, in the apse of the cathedral, the visitor contemplates a series of hand-painted icons, created in Italy, that convey biblical scenes from the Nativity of Jesus Christ to the Last Supper and Crucifixion.




Father Saji Thomas

Furthermore, the cathedral’s altar, baptistery, pews and other furnishings are also crafted in Italy.

The adjacent multipurpose building is pending. Made up of five floors, the building acts as a pastoral center, the residence and office of the Bishop and his assistants, as well as a place for educating newcomers the history, laws and traditions of the countries (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia) belonging to the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia.

The cathedral’s presence reaffirms the reputation of Bahrain — home to 1.5 million citizens — as a land of openness and tolerance of other religions, including Judaism and Hinduism.

Because Bahrain was an accessible entrepot for traders and foreigners who brought along their ideas and established schools, aviation, oil and banking companies, the first Catholic Church erected in the Arabian Peninsula was in modern-day, pre-independence Manama in 1939.

The well-known Sacred Heart Church — built on land donated by the Emir of Bahrain — still stands today, opening its doors to thousands of Catholics.

Father Thomas explained that a key factor that led the country to live in its culture of acceptance is the support coming from the monarchy. “I think it mostly depends upon the ruling family. From the very beginning onwards, the King and the royal family were very kind to the expatriates,” he said.

Bahrain’s constitution protects non-Muslims’ right to pursue their freedom of worship and display symbols of their faith. Along with their Muslim counterparts, they have held high positions in a variety of fields — from legislation to commerce.

Another crucial date in the history of Christianity in Bahrain is 1892, when the American Reverend Samuel Zwemer and his missionaries landed in this Arab territory and set up the first Protestant church in the region. Today, 19 registered churches exist in different parts of Bahrain, such as Sar and Budaiya, and about 9 percent of the population is Christian.

“We have a good workforce, in the Middle East and the Gulf area, of expatriates from all over the world. We have engineers, doctors and nurses,” Father Thomas said, referring to expats, who make up over half of the kingdom’s total population. He also noted that many of Bahrain’s Christians come from South Asia, namely India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Europeans and Arabs from the Levant region account for the rest of the island’s Christian population.

Originally from Cyprus, 32-year-old Mario Glykys is a Dubai-based digital consultant, who grew up in Bahrain from the age of 3 until 18. He recalls a “very positive experience” of living with his family in Bahraini society as an expat and a practising member of the Greek Orthodox Church.




Mario Glykys

“I realize more and more over the years how lucky we were to be able to grow up in such a diverse society,” Glykys told Arab News. “I always felt part of the community and I never felt as if I was an outsider within that community. In terms of a religious standpoint, acceptance is the word that I can use. We always never felt that we had an issue practising our faith – it was actually quite the opposite.”

When the Christmas season arrived every year in Bahrain, “similar to the UAE, you go to hotels and they’re all made up with Christmas trees to celebrate the period,” Glykys said, adding that the island’s Muslims “warmed to” such festive displays. “There was a lot of interest in trying to understand outside of their religion and potentially their culture as well to see how other people celebrate and what their beliefs are,” he said.

Glykys is not surprised that the Gulf’s biggest cathedral is coming up in Bahrain. “It’s really nice to see Bahrain being a pioneer in allowing people to follow their religion.” One Bahraini Muslim national, who wished to remain anonymous, said although a wave of extremist ideologies overshadowed the Gulf in the late 1970s — following Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the Siege of Mecca in 1979 — Bahrainis eventually returned to “rationality and reason.”

He put it this way: “Bahrain is a place of diversity of thought. They never changed what Bahrain was about and this is something I’m very proud of.”

Many people in the Gulf view tiny Bahrain as a promising example for the wider Middle East of what having respect for others can look like. “The coexistence of religions is possible,” Father Saji said, pointing out that a mosque stands just two kilometers away from the cathedral. “That’s precisely and explicitly what we are seeing here in Bahrain with the construction of the cathedral.”

Twitter: @artprojectdxb


Oman night ban returns as ICU cases hit new record

Oman night ban returns as ICU cases hit new record
Updated 15 April 2021

Oman night ban returns as ICU cases hit new record

Oman night ban returns as ICU cases hit new record
  • There are more than 770 hospitalized COVID-19 patients
  • Authorities have renewed the ban on all commercial activities and movement of people and vehicles between 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.

DUBAI: Oman has reported on Wednesday a record number of coronavirus patients in the intensive care unit as the Sultanate renewed night curfew, daily Times of Oman reported.

There are more than 770 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, with 264 in ICU, for the first time since the pandemic started, the report said.

Authorities have renewed the ban on all commercial activities and movement of people and vehicles between 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. local time throughout the holy month of Ramadan.

All types of gatherings, including iftars in mosques, tents or public places typical during Ramadan are affected by the prohibition against mass assembly.

Oman’s Supreme Committee, which was created to deal with all coronavirus pandemic related developments, also imposed a ban on all social, sports and cultural activities and any other group activities.

Key sectoral workers such as in oil, healthcare, utilities, food supply, media and three-ton trucks are exempted from the movement ban, provided they have permissions. Pharmacies were also allowed to operate during the commercial ban.

The decisions can either be relaxed or toughened, depending on the pandemic situation, according to Dr. Abdullah Nasser Al-Harrasi, the minister of Information and a member of the COVID-19 Supreme Committee.


Turkish delegation to visit Egypt in May for ‘normalization’ talks: foreign minister

Turkish delegation to visit Egypt in May for ‘normalization’ talks: foreign minister
Updated 35 min 29 sec ago

Turkish delegation to visit Egypt in May for ‘normalization’ talks: foreign minister

Turkish delegation to visit Egypt in May for ‘normalization’ talks: foreign minister
  • Turkey and Egypt froze ties after the 2013 overthrow of president Muhammad Mursi
  • Cavusoglu said the first delegation talks would be at the level of deputy foreign ministers

ISTANBUL: A Turkish delegation will visit Egypt next month as part of Ankara’s efforts to mend ties, the foreign minister said on Thursday.
“Egypt invited a delegation from Turkey. The delegation will go in early May,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the private NTV broadcaster.
“We will discuss openly how to normalize relations.”
Turkey and Egypt froze ties after the 2013 overthrow of president Muhammad Mursi, who forged close ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
That year, both countries expelled each others’ ambassadors and Cairo had then declared the Turkish envoy “persona non grata.”
But Turkish officials last month said Ankara had established the first diplomatic contacts with Cairo since 2013 as part of wider efforts to repair relations with other Middle Eastern rivals.
Cavusoglu on Thursday said the first delegation talks would be at the level of deputy foreign ministers, ahead of a contact between the ministers.
“I hope we will all together further improve relations,” he said.


US ready to facilitate maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel

US ready to facilitate maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel
Updated 34 min 41 sec ago

US ready to facilitate maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel

US ready to facilitate maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel
  • He also addressed Iran’s cooperation and work with Hezbollah
  • The official also addressed the current economic and political crisis in the country and Hezbollah’s activities


DUBAI: The US Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale said on Thursday they are ready to facilitate a Lebanese-Israeli agreement on the maritime borders.

“These negotiations have the potential to unlock significant economic benefits for Lebanon,” Hale said during a press conference at Baabda palace in Lebanon.

The official also addressed the current economic and political crisis in the country and Hezbollah’s activities.

“(The) Lebanese people are suffering cause the leaders failed to put the interests of the country first,” Hale said.

“Hezbollah’s accumulation of dangerous weapons, smuggling and other illicit and corrupt activities undermine legitimate state institutions, they rob the Lebanese the ability to build a peaceful and prosperous country,” he added.

He also addressed Iran’s cooperation and work with Hezbollah.

“It’s Iran that’s fueling and financing this challenge to the state and its distortion of Lebanese political life,” Hale added.

The Under Secretary for Political Affairs also said that those who stand in the way may face punishment.

“Those who continue to obstruct progress on the reform agenda, jeopardize their relationship with the United States and our partners and open themselves up to punitive actions,” Hale added.


Jordan slams Israeli police bid to silence call to prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque minarets

Jordan slams Israeli police bid to silence call to prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque minarets
Updated 15 April 2021

Jordan slams Israeli police bid to silence call to prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque minarets

Jordan slams Israeli police bid to silence call to prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque minarets
  • Israel is a signatory to numerous international treaties obliging it to respect the sanctity of holy places

AMMAN: Jordan on Wednesday condemned Israeli police for sabotaging door locks at four Al-Aqsa Mosque minarets in a bid to silence the Muslim call to prayer.

The move came after waqf officials, who oversee Jerusalem’s holy sites, refused to turn off loudspeakers on the first day of Ramadan. They said the Israelis had wanted it quiet while new soldiers prayed at the Buraq (Western) wall.

Jordanian officials claimed employees of the Jordan-run Jerusalem waqf and Al-Aqsa affairs department were harassed during the police operation.

Daifallah Al-Fayez, spokesman for the Jordanian Foreign Ministry, described the Israeli actions as a provocation against Muslims around the world and a violation of international law and the historical status quo.

He said that Al-Aqsa Mosque was a “pure” Islamic holy site and that the Jerusalem waqf department was “the sole authority” tasked with supervising all of its affairs.

A source at the Jerusalem Waqf Council told Arab News: “This is the first time since 1967 that Israeli occupiers have sabotaged locks in order to enter the minarets and physically cut off the electricity to the loudspeakers. And they pursued waqf officials and staff who refused to carry out their demands.”

Israel is a signatory to numerous international treaties obliging it to respect the sanctity of holy places.

An Israeli siren was sounded in Jerusalem at 8 p.m. on Tuesday as a tribute to the country’s 23,928 fallen soldiers with that day’s call for isha prayer in the city being at 8:29 p.m.

Hanna Issa, head of the Islamic-Christian Committee for Jerusalem, told Arab News that the Israeli action had been a violation of the 1998 Rome Convention and called on the international community to hold Israel to account.

Dimitri Diliani, president of the National Christian Coalition in the Holy Land, told Arab News that the incident was an attempt to stifle religious freedoms and represented an attack against Islamic holy places.

“In addition, this is a reflection of a racist policy of the Israeli occupiers that can’t accept anyone who is not Jewish,” he said.

Ahmad Tamimi, member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, urged international action to put an end to Israeli violations of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.


Exposed: Houthi plan to prosecute kidnapped Yemeni model Entisar Hammadi

Exposed: Houthi plan to prosecute kidnapped Yemeni model Entisar Hammadi
Updated 15 April 2021

Exposed: Houthi plan to prosecute kidnapped Yemeni model Entisar Hammadi

Exposed: Houthi plan to prosecute kidnapped Yemeni model Entisar Hammadi
  • Kidnapping of Al-Hammadi and two friends is latest attack by the Houthis on dissidents

AL-MUKALLA: Iran-backed Houthis plan to launch a criminal investigation against Entesar Al-Hammadi, a young Yemeni model and actress, who was abducted from a Sanaa street on Feb. 20, the model’s lawyer Khaled Mohammed Al-Kamal said on Wednesday.

The kidnapping of Al-Hammadi and two of her friends is the latest in a string of attacks by the Houthis on dissidents and liberal women in areas under the group’s control.

Al-Kamal told Arab News that a prosecutor from the rebel-controlled West Sanaa court will question Entesar on Sunday.

“My client was arrested without a warrant,” Al-Kamal said by telephone, giving no information about the Houthis’ explanation for the abduction.

Yemeni officials said the three actresses were traveling to shoot a drama series when the rebels stopped their vehicle on Sanaa’s Hadda Street and took them to an unknown location.
 


Al-Hammadi was born to a Yemeni father and an Ethiopian mother and pursued her ambition to become a model despite growing up in a conservative society. The 20-year-old first caught the public’s attention after she published images showing off traditional Yemeni costumes and she later appeared on a local television show talking about her dream of becoming an international supermodel.

The Houthis accused the abducted actresses of violating traditional Islamic dress codes.

Their detainment has sparked outrage inside and outside Yemen as human rights activists and government officials compared Houthi suppression of women to similar activities by terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh.


Moammar Al-Eryani, Yemen's minister for information, culture and tourism, said the rebels have launched a “systemic and organized” crackdown on Yemeni women in areas under their control.

“We call on the international community, the UN, the US envoys to Yemen and the women's protection organizations to condemn this crime and pressure the terrorist Houthi militia to immediately release the abductees,” the minister wrote on social media. “They must stop the extortion of women and release all disappeared women from their secret prisons unconditionally.”

Al-Hammadi told a local TV station last year that she wished she could travel abroad to work as a model, citing parental and societal resistance at home.

“It would be great if I was given an opportunity outside Yemen,” she said.

 

 


Social media users have blasted the Houthis for snatching women from the street.

Huda Al-Sarari, a Yemeni activist, said that the abduction of Al-Hammadi is part of “a dirty” campaign by the rebels against women.

“My solidarity is with my dear Entisar and with all male and female abductees inside the militia’s prisons,” she wrote on Twitter.

Amat Al-Salam Al-Hajj, chairwoman of the Mothers of Abductees Association, an umbrella organization for thousands of female relatives of war prisoners, told Arab News that the Houthis have “brazenly” committed crimes against dissidents and women amid “unexplained” silence of international rights organizations.

“The Houthis have abducted models and female activists and committed flagrant violations of human rights before the eyes and ears of the UN, human rights organizations, and everyone else,” she said.