The planned building of the largest Catholic church in the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain – intended to be the main centre for Catholics in the region – is creating tensions between its Sunni and Shia Muslim communities.
Reports coming from capital Manama say some hardline Sunni clerics have strongly opposed the construction of the church complex, in a rare disagreement with the country’s Sunni king.
More than 70 clerics signed a petition last week saying it was forbidden to build churches in the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.
One prominent cleric, Sheik Adel Hassan al-Hamad, proclaimed in a sermon during Friday prayers last month, that there was no justification for building further churches in Bahrain, adding, “anyone who believes that a church is a true place of worship is someone who has broken in their faith in God”.
In response, the government ordered him transferred out of his mosque, located in the elite district of Riffa, where many members of the royal family live and the king has several palaces.
But the transfer order touched off a wave of protests by the cleric’s supporters on social media sites and by Sunni-led political blocs. Finally, the government was forced last week to cancel the order.
The uproar reflects the widening influence and confidence of hardline Sunni groups, who have been a key support for the monarchy as it faces a wave of protests led by Shia demanding greater political rights.
Some reports suggest Shia account for about 70% of Bahrain’s population of just over half a million people. They complain widespread discrimination and lack opportunities.
More than 50 people have been killed and hundreds detained in nearly 19 months of unrest in the strategic island kingdom, which is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Bahrain’s rulers have promised some reforms and urged dialogue to ease the crisis.
Bahrain’s most senior Shia cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, has also actively opposed the church plans, questioning why the government should donate land for a Christian site when Shia mosques have faced damage during the crackdowns.