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Catholicism growing by leaps and bounds in the Middle East

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
March 13th, 2014
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Middle East is seen as a Muslim stronghold, with little room for those of opposing or different faiths. Christian minorities in this part of the world often practice their religion in secret, or face persecution. Most remarkably, however, Catholicism is growing in this part of the world thanks to migrant workers who bring their faith with them.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - In a region populated by vastly wealthy families who are connected to oil, the are relies on immigrants 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 Catholic population on the peninsula is 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.

Mired in poverty, lacking citizenship rights and belonging to a religious minority expectedly would leave many faithful here at a distinct disadvantage. Despite these odds, Catholics here have created a welcoming environment for others connected by their faith.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain recently agreed to donate land for the construction of a Catholic church, to be called "Our Lady of Arabia." The church will serve as the cathedral for the Vicariate of Northern Arabia.

Guest workers here who want to attend Mass generally go to one of the Western embassies, especially Italy's. They also gather either in a private home or on the grounds of a foreign-owned oil company.

Member of the Comboni missionary religious order, 69-year-old Bishop Camillo Ballin leads the local Catholic community. He was recently in the United States to raise money for the cathedral, which he estimates will cost around $30 million.

Ballin termed the decision in Bahrain "a good sign of dialogue which should be imitated by other countries." Ballin is upfront about the fact that he lives in one of the world's most difficult places to be a Christian.

"It's not the policy of the governments of these countries to convert anyone or to impose Islam," he said. "But those pressures are often applied by individuals and radical Islamic movements."

Ballin said that sometimes Christian workers are promised better salaries or other perks if they convert. They've also been forced to work schedules that make attending Mass on Sunday virtually impossible.

Building a church here is a tricky proposition, he acknowledges. In deference to Islamic sensitivities, he said, the new cathedral won't have a cross at the top or any other outward sign of its Christian identity.

"In the Arabic world in general, this is a time of cruel fanaticism," Ballin said. "We don't want to provoke the fanatics by making ourselves a target."

"As Christians, external crosses are important, but they're not essential," he said. "The important thing is to witness with our lives that as Christians, we're children of a Father who loves everyone."

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