The mere prospect seems impossible: Pope Benedict XVI as the first modern-day pontiff to set foot on the Arabian Peninsula.
But is such a visit so unlikely? Speculation about the possibility has been growing since Bahrain’s King Hamad invited the Holy Father to visit his country earlier this month. The king is the first Arab head of state to officially invite the Pope during a private audience and comes after Qatar’s deputy prime minister made a similar invitation last year.
Both gestures reveal an interesting phenomenon that’s taking place in the region: a growth in the number of Christians living there and the consequential pressure their presence is putting on Arab rulers to accommodate them. Bahrain, like most Arabian countries, has a large immigrant population. Foreign laborers now represent 35 percent of the kingdom’s inhabitants, while the number is 80 percent in the United Arab Emirates, and 60 percent in Kuwait.
Indeed, of the Arab Peninsula’s 35 million people, as many as 40 percent are foreign citizens. A large number are Christians or non-Muslims from Asia and, of them, a significant proportion hail from traditionally Christian areas like the Philippines and southern India.
Statistically, Christians now constitute roughly 9 percent of Bahrain's population of 720,000 people; in Saudi Arabia, the Catholic Church estimates there are as many as 1.2 million Filipino Catholics, up from 800,000 in 2005, making them the largest immigrant group behind Indians and Bangladeshis.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the region’s rulers are starting to take notice. After all, the Gulf’s rapid economic growth has been built largely on the backs of immigrant workers and so, to a large extent, future growth depends on their well-being.
This factor indirectly prompted Bahrain to send a Jewish diplomat to be its representative to the United States. Meanwhile, Qatar’s first Catholic Church opened in March. According to Bishop Paul Hinder, the Pope’s Abu-Dhabi-based representative to Arabia, governments in the Gulf are “competing” with each other when it comes to interfaith dialogue initiatives.
But there is still a long way to go before full religious freedom matches what Westerners enjoy, even in such a religiously liberal state as Bahrain. Bureaucracy and a distant ruler-subject relationship are blamed for slow progress in freedom of worship. This is most evident when you visit a Catholic parish in the region. There are just 20 in total, run by teams of priests, mostly Capuchin friars, who are in charge of caring for hundreds of thousands of faithful in a single parish because the government won’t allow more churches to be built.
The Church is applying gentle pressure on the monarchs to grant more permissions, but it is also pressing for other concerns to be addressed.
In particular, it wants better employment protections for its flock. The majority of immigrants are unskilled or blue-collar workers earning as little as $10 a day in a very wealthy region.
Millions of them live in squalid labor camps and, in the worst cases, live lives of modern-day slavery or indentured labor. Housemaids, most of whom are Filipino Catholic, are at particular risk, with thousands subject to abuse, virtually imprisoned by their employers, given no rights and unable to worship freely. Moreover, almost all non-Muslim religion in the Gulf feel insecure and fear they could be asked to leave at any time.
All these problems could be addressed and possibly resolved by a papal visit, as well as offering a very powerful boost to interreligious dialogue.
Another factor supporting the Pope’s presence in Arabia is the current reformist tendencies in the House of Saud. King Abdullah is slowly trying to reach out to other faiths and engage with modernity. In June, he brought various heads of Islam to Mecca to discuss how to best dialogue with other faiths. And in mid July, he became the first ever Saudi monarch to host a major interfaith meeting, bringing together senior figures not only from Islam and Christianity, but also Judaism.
These landmark meetings come on top of his meeting with Pope Benedict last year in Rome, modest improvements in religious freedom (private non-Muslim worship now goes unpunished), and successful clampdowns on Saudi terrorists. Although he cannot say it openly owing to the presence of extremists in his own government, few doubt the king would welcome a visit by the Holy Father.
The only real obstacles to a papal visit are twofold.
First, extremists will obviously oppose it. Much, therefore, depends on initiatives of King Abdullah and other Arab leaders to placate or discredit that vocal minority.
Second, for the Pope, the problem is one of protocol – which States should he visit? Could he, for instance, visit the region without calling in on Saudi Arabia? “I am more than happy if one day the visit is possible,” said Bishop Hinder. “But I think it will take some time because of the many involved questions”.
If it did happen, Benedict XVI wouldn’t be the first Pope to travel to the region: Pope Shenouda III, head of the Egyptian Coptic Church, visited the U.A.E. last year to open a new Coptic church in Abu Dhabi. A visit by the successor of Peter, however, would garner much more attention, and bring with it some tangible benefits to all the region’s people.
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