10/06/2022, 11.40
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Vicar of Arabia: Pope in Bahrain a 'signal' to Shiite Islam

For Msgr Hinder, the November trip is the next stage in the path taht leads from Abu Dhabi and Kazakhstan. A "positive strategy" of approaching the "different currents" of the Muslim faith and an invitation to continue on the "path" of dialogue and encounter. For the pastor of the Sacred Heart Church in Manama, it is a "rare opportunity" to be strengthened in the faith.

Manama (AsiaNews) - Pope Francis' apostolic journey to Bahrain is part of a path that has its own "logic" and that has previously touched "Abu Dhabi, Morocco, Iraq and more recently Kazakhstan".

Moreover, this choice shows how "in the Pontiff's mind there is a positive strategy of approaching the different currents within Islam", an attempt to relaunch or establish "a dialogue with the vast Muslim world" Msgr. Paul Hinder, apostolic administrator of northern Arabia (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain), tells AsiaNews.

In 2019, as vicar of southern Arabia, Mgr Hinder had welcomed the pontiff to Abu Dhabi, for the first historic visit to the Gulf. "The choice of Bahrain, among the nations of the region," he added, "is also a strong signal to the Shia universe" that is in the majority (and in some cases persecuted) in the kingdom, although the leadership is firmly in the hands of a Sunni monarchy.

The Pope will visit Bahrain from November 3 to 6. The apostolic journey includes a public mass at the National Stadium and a speech at the 'Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence', as well as visits and meetings in Awali and Manama.

There are over 80,000 Catholics in the Arab country out of a total population of 1.4 million (about 240,000 foreigners), the vast majority of whom are migrants from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines. There is also an indigenous Christian population, a rarity for the Gulf nations: a thousand faithful, the vast majority of whom are Catholics, mostly Arab-Christians, who emigrated from other Middle Eastern nations to the kingdom between the 1930s and 1950s and are now full citizens.

"A visit, the one to Bahrain, provoked and invoked by the king, who has been working for some time to welcome the pope," continues Mgr. Hinder, and which becomes an opportunity "to send another signal to the Muslim world with the intervention at the forum," although the details of the meeting are "still scarce.

"There is also the strong gesture towards Catholics themselves," the vicar emphasised, "telling them that they are not forgotten, in the face of a feeling of abandonment that sometimes emerges in our communities". In this perspective, 'seeing the pope stay for three days is a strong gesture and a beautiful occasion'. 

Asked about the differences with February 2019 in Abu Dhabi, Mgr Hinder says: "It is an invitation not to stop, he wants to tell us that we are on the right path even if, perhaps, after the Emirates the pace of teh journey seemed to have slowed down a little. He rightly wants to stimulate us by maintaining a profoundly realistic outlook'. While not forgetting the many realities and problems afflicting the world, from Africa to Ukraine, Pope Francis 'knows that, in a certain way, the future is decided in the East'.

Comparing it with the southern vicariate (Emirates, Yemen and Oman), the northern one "is more complicated, also because there is no central reality like the Emirates, which, with its nine parishes, represents a pole of aggregation. In Qatar there is only one parish, the same in Bahrain, in Kuwait four but only two churches, and then there is the Saudi reality. Here,' Bishop Hinder concludes, 'even for the bishop it is more difficult to be close to a community of different countries and characters'. 

Enthusiasm and satisfaction are also expressed by Fr. Xavier Marian D'Souza, pastor of the Sacred Heart Church in Manama. He calls the visit 'a once-in-a-lifetime event for the Catholics of the kingdom and for the entire Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia'.

"It is something that they had never dreamed of. I have no words to describe the feelings of the community here." He continues : “The Catholic community in Bahrain and the other countries of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia is eagerly looking forward to the Holy Father's visit, as it provides them with a rare opportunity to be strengthened in their Faith, in the presence of the Holy Father."

The priest, who has led the capital's parish for five years, notes “Bahrain is the "home" of the first Church in the Gulf, opened in 1939. The Kingdom has 3 Catholic churches, including the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, the largest church in the Arabian Gulf. “Our community in Bahrain is very grateful to H M King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa for inviting Pope Francis to visit the Kingdom. We are also thankful to the government authorities for their engagement and cooperation in planning the visit and itinerary of the Holy Father.”

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