Christianity Rises in the Heart of Islam
In forty-five years as a Catholic priest in Muslim countries, Camillo Ballin says he hasn't converted anyone.
"Jesus performed miracles in pagan territories," the Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia reminds me during a visit on DePaul University's Chicago campus last week. "We have to imitate Jesus without expecting anything."
Bishop Ballin might not expect converts, but he does expect another sort of miracle. Ballin made the rounds in the United States earlier this month to raise funds for the construction of a new cathedral and activities center in Bahrain. Our Lady of Arabia will be a place of worship for the 2.5 million growing faithful in ten parishes and more than one-hundred underground communities.
The Italian-born bishop's vicariate is based in Bahrain and stretches from Kuwait to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. His flock is mostly comprised of migrant guest workers from the Philippines and India. The faithful in Saudi Arabia worship in private. When Ballin visits, he's not allowed to wear his Cross.
But Bahrain is different. The people of the small island Kingdom "are used to other religions," Ballin says. So much so that King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa donated the land for the cathedral. "The king has a special appreciation for the Catholic Church. We are the only church of which the king has given land."
For Ballin, King Hamad's generosity has a personal touch. After living in Bahrain for less than a year, Ballin was told he would be given a Bahraini passport. This floored DePaul economics professor Dr. Michael Miller, who has taught in Bahrain several times since 2001 when DePaul partnered with the Bahrain Institute of Banking and Finance to launch an MBA program. Miller said this was a "great honor" as foreigners normally wait twenty-five years or more for a Bahraini passport.
When Ballin went to pick up his passport, the minister asked him to wait. Suddenly, the king emerged and personally presented the bishop his passport.
Notwithstanding the king's diplomatic pleasantries, barbed-wire surrounding a church in Bahrain's capital doesn't lie. Ballin's cathedral project is not without its enemies. When news leaked in 2012, more than 70 clerics signed a petition opposing the building of a new church. The bishop says this had more to do with political disagreements between Sunni and Shiite Muslims than any anti-Christian animus.
But Ballin refuses to go any further in a cautious effort not to antagonize the situation, admitting, "The official religion of these countries is Islam. We have to respect the law." Christian persecution is no joke, but Ballin smiles as he recalls being followed in Egypt during the 1970s. "Let them do their job," he said of his minders. "My job is another."