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Vatican plans new cathedral in Bahrain

The king of Bahrain has given the Catholic Church 9,000 square meters of land to build a cathedral. Radical Muslims have reacted in protest against the decision.

The idea to build another Catholic church in Bahrain isn't new. They took shape after a restructuring of church institutions in May 2011.

"The king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Issa bin Salman al-Khalifa, visited the Vatican after that. That's where the wish was expressed for a new church," Harald Suermann, director of the Institute of Missiology Missio in Aachen, told DW.

"And the king granted it. In that respect, there are new ties between the Vatican and Bahrain, and they're trying to establish a new seat [for the bishop] there."

Catholic leaders decided to move the seat of the Church's authority in the Arabian peninsula - known as the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia - from Kuwait. They say the new location will make it easier for clerics to obtain travel visas when they organize meetings. The new cathedral will be larger than the others in the state, giving parishioners more space and providing new facilities for the bishop's staff.

The Catholic church has had a presence in Bahrain since 1939. Sacred Heart Church in the capital, Manama, is the oldest in the Persian Gulf. The second is located in Awali - the former oil hub in central Bahrain -where Catholic worshippers share the space with the Anglican community.

King's approval likely a PR move

Prof. Dr. des. Katja Niethammer Vertretungsprofessorin Freie Universität Berlin Institut für Islamwissenschaft

The protests have mainly come from Islamic groups already known for intolerance, says Niethammer

Katja Niethammer, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Hamburg, says the king's gesture was a political maneuver, not a possible sign of religious tolerance or pragmatism.

The king's main interest is good media exposure in the West - particularly after the suppression of revolts during the Arab Spring - and to improve relationships on a symbolic level, said Niethammer.

"There's a Shiite majority there who has been calling for more democracy, more of a voice and more political participation for many years. And that protest movement was crushed and suppressed by the royal dynasty," she said.

Inner-Islamic fight

The protests against the new church in past months have come primarily from radical Islamic groups. The situation doesn't look like it will quiet down anytime soon, said Suermann.

"Even more radical tendencies are apparent, and not just in Bahrain. They can be seen all over the peninsula," he said.

Bahrain's population of 1.3 million includes around 450,000 non-Muslim residents. Between 80,000 to 120,000 of those are believed to be Christian. The Vicariate of Northern Arabia puts the number of Catholics in Bahrain at 80,000.

"There is also a kind of tradition that no church may emerge or be re-erected in the place where Islam was born," he said. "Many Muslims consider that ground holy, a place where other religions have no business."

Suermann added, however, that Muslims do have other leanings that point toward a much higher level of tolerance.

He considers the current conflict over the new church fundamentally an inner-Islamic dispute, one in which the Christians have been caught up.

A Bahraini nun stands near the gate of Sacred Heart Church in Manama, Bahrain (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

At least 80,000 Christians are estimated to live in Bahrain

Competition adding fuel to the conflict

Niethammer has a similar view of the situation. "It's a very tense situation. There are many political prisoners. And it's highly charged by the different denominations, but it's not a real religious conflict," she said.

"In simple terms, the radicals generally belong to the Sunni group who essentially don't tolerate any other religions there," she said "The first protests against the church's construction came from those circles." In Bahrain, the Shiite majority is predominantly against the royal dynasty, while the Sunnis support it.

Because the situation is so tense, Niethammer thinks the conflict would blow up quickly, with antagonized Islamic groups competing with each other over who could stand up more for Islam and the Arabic country.

"This is a situation, too, that already resembles a powder keg. Aside from that, this desert church wouldn't particularly strike a chord with the Bahrainis," she added.

The conflict in Bahrain between the Muslims and the Christians will likely intensify, rather than calm, just as it has between the Sunnis and Shiites.

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