Catholicism alive and well, and growing in the Muslim world

King Hamad of Bahrain

Here’s a fact about Catholicism in the early 21st century that flies in the face of conventional wisdom: It’s growing by leaps and bounds in the heart of the Muslim world, writes John Allen.

- Boston Globe

Many of us have heard or read reports about an exodus of Christians out of the Middle East, and in terms of the indigenous Arab Christian population that’s all too real. Christians now make up only 5 percent of the region’s population, down from 20 percent a century ago. In places like Iraq, whole Christian communities are on the brink of extinction.

Yet the Arabian Peninsula today is also, improbably, seeing one of the most dramatic Catholic growth rates anywhere in the world. The expansion is being driven not by Arab converts, but by foreign ex-pats whom the region increasingly relies on for manual labor and domestic service.

Filipinos, Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Koreans, and members of other nationalities, are becoming the new working poor in some of the world’s wealthiest societies.

The result is a Catholic population on the peninsula estimated at around 2.5 million. Kuwait and Qatar are home to between 350,000 and 400,000 Catholics, Bahrain has about 140,000, and Saudi Arabia itself has 1.5 million.

Despite the triple handicaps of being poor, lacking citizenship rights, and belonging to a religious minority often viewed with suspicion, these folks are trying to put down roots for the faith, and having some surprising success.

Recently, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain agreed to donate land for the construction of a Catholic church, to be called Our Lady of Arabia, which will serve as the cathedral for the Vicariate of Northern Arabia. Without a church, the custom up to this point has been that guest workers who want to attend Mass generally go to one of the Western embassies, especially Italy’s, or they gather either in a private home or on the grounds of a foreign-owned oil company.

Bishop Camillo Ballin, a 69-year-old Italian and member of the Comboni missionary religious order, leads this burgeoning Catholic community. He is touring internationally in early March to raise money for the cathedral, which he estimates will cost around A$33 million.

Bishop Ballin termed the decision in Bahrain 'a good sign of dialogue which should be imitated by other countries.'

Photo: King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain has recently agreed to donate land for the construction of a Catholic church 

FULL STORY Catholicism growing in heart of Muslim world

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