Skip to main content

Bahrain opposition urge Pope to stop church construction on 'stolen' land

Activists claim cathedral would be built on land appropriated by royal family from public trust
Bahrainis wave their national flag as they drive down a street celebrating Bahrain National Day (AFP)

Human rights organisations have called on Pope Francis to cancel plans for the construction of a church complex in Bahrain, over fears it would utilise public land allegedly bought up by the Royal family through the use of a secretive investment vehicle.

An investigation in the Financial Times last week revealed that the ruling Al-Khalifa family in Bahrain has managed to buy up billions of dollars of previously state-owned land in Bahrain through the use of an investment vehicle called the Premier Group which it has used to develop lucrative commercial ventures – such as a high rise housing complexes – depriving fishermen and other Bahrainis of access.

The new cathedral will be constructed in Awali in central Bahrain, on land which opposition groups in the country – including Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) – claim is land seized from the public trust.

“We urge Pope Francis to reconsider establishing a church on land that may have been stolen from the public trust to benefit the ruling elite,” said Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB, in statement on Monday.

“The international community cannot abet the appropriation of such public land for private gain, especially when it inordinately impacts the lives and livelihoods of the poorest of Bahraini society, the majority of whom are Shi’a.”

However, Bishop Camillo Ballin, who is the head of the Catholic church in Northern Arabia praised the deal as proof of Bahrain’s commitment to religious freedom.

“This church is a symbol of the openness of the country and a symbol for the many Catholics of this country," he was quoted as saying in Gulf Daily News.

"I believe there are around 100,000 to 140,000 Catholics in Bahrain. I will continue to be the bishop for the region and I will also be the bishop of the new church.”

Campaigners also argued that the move would help propagate religious intolerance in Bahrain, as it would feed into the continuing suppression of Shiite Muslims in the country.

“We support the recognition of Bahrain’s catholic population,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at BIRD.

“However, we fear that by accepting this land, the same Pope Francis who once lamented the global rise of religious harassment, repression, and even persecution’ will inadvertently participate in a wider campaign of intolerance and the suppression of religious freedom in Bahrain.”

Some Sunnis Muslim clerics in Bahrain also reportedly opposed the construction, claiming there were already enough churches in Bahrain.

Opposition activists in Bahrain have long argued that the government has been engaged in a scheme to change the religious demographic balance of Bahrain through a process of stripping Shiites of their citizenship and naturalising Sunnis as citizens.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.