THE FUTURE SEAT of the Church in Northern Arabia, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia at Awali, Bahrain, took a first step toward completion June 10, 2018, when a groundbreaking ceremony signaled the formal start of construction.
The event, which included a Liturgy of the Word, was well attended by clergy and dignitaries, including the Ambassadors of Italy and France; a representative of the King of Bahrain; the Apostolic Nuncio of Bahrain, Archbishop Francisco Montecillo Padilla; and the Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia, Bishop Camillo Ballin. In addition, there were representatives of the countries which comprise the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
A time capsule was also prepared the site, containing a history of the Catholic Church, a history of the Church in the Vicariate and additional information on the cathedral. It will be interred in the building’s foundation.
The project has been several years in the making, receiving its first boost on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, Feb. 11, 2013, when the King of Bahrain, His Majesty King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa granted 9000 square meters of land to the Catholic community to build the new cathedral.
The construction of the cathedral is dependent on many factors. Perseverance in the face of difficulties and the good will of the local faithful and authorities have kept the project advancing since its inception. In addition, the factor of funding is constantly present, as the capital needs mount alongside the bricks and mortar.
A significant contributor to the project is Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). Father Andrzej Halemba, ACN’s Middle East specialist, was present for the groundbreaking and said that it was a memorable event to see the project make a tangible move towards becoming a reality.
“It was very joyful for me,” said Father Halemba. “It was a time for prayers, a deep spiritual meeting, and to place our trust in the Lord. In the Liturgy of the Word we prayed for the country—with prayers for the people of this country.”
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia will do more than minister to the spiritual needs of the faithful, who comprise a population of nearly 5 million across the four countries of the Vicariate. A multipurpose building adjoining the cathedral will house social and educational events. These facilities will meet needs which are of particular import for the “local” Catholics, as the congregation is comprised mainly of expatriates hailing from India, the Philippines and Bangladesh, many of them working domestic and laboring jobs to support families left behind in their home countries. Being in the minority in terms of faith and ethnicity, it is not unusual for these faithful to face discrimination; other disadvantages and very difficult working conditions.
“In Bahrain the situation is not too bad, at the worst you might say there is the temptation to exploit the workers that come here. Workers may be forced to work in very hot conditions, in May it went over 116 degrees,” said Father Halemba, who added:
“We will be able to have classes in English, teach some cultural sensitivity. It’s very important for the people who come to work here to learn these things so that they can have an easier time away from their home,” said the priest, since “their security can be at stake if they are unaware and accidentally behave in a way that offends the local people.”
The people that come to work here will have a place to come together to worship. Father Halemba noted that the cathedral will be a visible marker of the goodwill of the people and royal family of Bahrain for the Christian community in the Arabian Peninsula; the cathedral will be a significant symbol in a region where many run great risks and some even lose their lives for practicing their faith.
The project is still in need of funds to see it to completion. The faithful of Bahrain have provided much of the funds themselves, “reminiscent of the widow’s mite, sharing what they have, even though their resources may be meagre, to see their place of worship become reality,” said Father Halemba.
“We still have a way to go,” said Father Halemba, adding that “there’s still some financial support needing to be raised. We will see where we need to go from here in the days to come.”