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These are news stories breaking after the publishing of this Word
– Twenty-First Century Crusades?
Prediction 12: A visit by cardinals and/or the Pope himself to Jerusalem/Middle
Pope Benedict to Visit Arabia?
By: Edward Pentin
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
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
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
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