The Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia, the former Apostolic Vicariate of Aden, Yemen, was established in 1889.This is the place where the Catholic Church started its missionary work.
Capuchins were in charge of the Vicariate of Arabia, which included Kuwait, the Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In 1939 the first Catholic Church in the Arabic Gulf was built in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. In 1953 the Apostolic Prefecture of Kuwait was separated from the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia. Carmelites are in charge of the Vicariate of Kuwait which was established in 1954.
In 2005, Father Camillo Ballin became the pastoral leader of the Vicariate, a Comboni missionary who was ordained bishop in the same year in the cathedral of Kuwait. In 2011, the Holy See decided to create the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, under the pastoral guidance of bishop Camillo Ballin, and the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which includes Omar, the Arab Emirates and Yemen, under the pastoral leadership of bishop Paul Hinder, a Swiss Capuchin who was consecrated bishop in 2004.
The Northern Arabia Vicariate covers a 2,179,856 square kilometer area with a population of approximately 35 million inhabitants. Saudi Arabia stretches over more than two million square kilometers, the estimated population is over 28 million inhabitants. The Christians of the Vicariate are almost all immigrants from the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. In Kuwait and Qatar, there are about 350,000 Catholics, in Bahrain, there are between 100 and 140 thousands, and in Saudi Arabia, Catholics are estimated to be about one million and a half. So, Catholics in the Vicariate are on the whole over 2 millions.
Bahrain is just a 757.7 sq km archipelago with 33 islands and is home to 1,358,000 people. 40% of the population are immigrants mostly from Asia. Christians are about 10% of the population. The missionaries of the Sacred Heart Church in Manama take cares of about 100 thousand faithful mostly Filipinos, and a thousand Catholics in Awali. Last year, the center of the Vicariate was moved from Kuwait to Bahrain. Bishop Ballin explains why: “There are two main reasons. Because Bahrain is more central, it is, in fact, located between Kuwait and Qatar and opposite Saudi Arabia; besides there is a bridge linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, which allows one country to be reached from the other in only an hour. The second reason is that it is easier to get entry visas in Bahrain for priests, catechists and Christian leaders arriving from other countries on the occasion of meetings”.
What are the main pastoral challenges of the Vicariate? “Mainly the different nationalities, languages, cultures and rites among the faithful. In Kuwait’s cathedral we celebrate in five different rites – Latin, Malabar, Malankarese, Maronite and Coptic – and in 12 languages. Diversity of rites and languages may sometimes create tensions. It is easily understood how complex it can be, trying to match 5 rites and 12 languages. The other main problem is room shortage which is sometimes the reason for tensions among the groups of our hundreds of thousands of faithful.
One more challenge is trying to make just one single Catholic Church out of these several Catholic communities. With regard, however, to space shortage, the good news is that Bahrain has just offered us a 9000 square meter plot for the construction of a new church in the country”, said bishop Ballin. The new church will be the cathedral of Northern Arabia’s Vicariate. It will be dedicated to Our Lady of Arabia. The housing for the priests, the bishop’s house and a pastoral center will be built next to the church. (Micol Briziobello)