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A Church in the Sands

By the end of 2016, a Catholic church will rise in the sands of the Muslim world. The construction of Our Lady of Arabia, in Awali, Bahrain, is slated to begin in October. Thanks to the generosity of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, over two acres of land will be used for several buildings, including a new cathedral that will seat 2,600 people. Bishop Camillo Ballin, M.C.C.J., the apostolic vicar of Northern Arabia, calls it a “symbol of Christianity” in the “heart of Islam.” Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity, will assist in raising $30 million for the new cathedral.

Bishop Ballin, noting that the official religion of Bahrain is Islam, told Catholic News Service that no visible symbols like a cross will be erected on the cathedral or the property. Having ministered in the Arab nations for 45 years, he said his “biggest challenge is to form one Catholic Church” from the various groups throughout the region and “to do good to everybody,” building respect and tolerance without proselytizing. While there is already a church that seats 700 people on the island nation, there is a pressing need for greater outreach to Catholics who come to the Persian Gulf to do manual labor and domestic service work. There are now 2.5 million Catholics in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

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Bishop Ballin hopes the new cathedral will serve the mission of the church to help Catholics “form communities, find new friends, to have a better human life.” As construction proceeds, may it be a sign that the cross and the crescent can peacefully coexist in the Middle East.

A Formidable Team

In an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera on March 5, Pope Francis admitted that the sexual abuse against children by clergy has left “extremely deep wounds,” but he also claimed that the Catholic Church is “perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility.” The defensive posture left many wondering if Pope Francis is able to provide the necessary leadership on this issue.

The membership of the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, announced by the Vatican on March 22, is a big step in the right direction. Lay women represent half of the eight-member panel; they are experts in mental health, child psychology and constitutional law. Most significantly, one of them is a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest. In 2012 Marie Collins of Ireland shared her story of abuse—and the refusal of her pastor and bishop to take her seriously—with 110 bishops and 35 superiors of religious orders gathered in Rome.

Some advocates for victims of abuse maintain the church does not need yet another study of the problem and that now it is time for concrete disciplinary action against those who have committed and covered up these crimes. What sets this new commission apart, however, is not only the credibility of its membership, but the global dimension of its mandate. With a survivor at the table, there will be unprecedented accountability when the pope takes advice on how to respond to survivors and what best practices to implement not just in one diocese or country but throughout the worldwide church. The commission undoubtedly faces a tall task, but at the very least, a formidable team is in place.

A Plea for Unity

Commenting on what turned out to be a surprisingly close runoff election in El Salvador, the nation’s bishops’ conference called for the country’s political leaders to govern “with an attitude of dialogue and consensus building, to reconcile us as a society.” Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the candidate of the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, known as the F.M.L.N., was declared the victor last month, after defeating Norman Quijano of the right-wing Republican Nationalist Alliance, or Arena, by a margin of just 0.22 percent. The extraordinarily close result has led to added tensions in a country still healing from the wounds of the civil war that only ended in 1992.

Mr. Quijano had challenged the results, alleging fraud and even going so far as to tell his supporters to take “a war footing” to defend their votes. Arena leaders have portrayed Mr. Sánchez Cerén, a member of the guerrilla army’s high command during the civil war, as a radical. They warn that El Salvador under his leadership could become another Venezuela.

President-elect Sánchez Cerén will not be able to govern without some cooperation from his opponents. The bishops of El Salvador see the close results as a “wise message” from the Salvadoran people and “a genuine demand for unity.” Observers predict that though Mr. Sánchez Cerén is a man of the left, he will govern as a pragmatist. Salvador Samayoa, a former F.M.L.N. leader respected by leaders in both parties, predicted the new president would be “calm, mature, thoughtful.” Another piece of good news is that, unlike in 2004, U.S. government officials declined to endorse a candidate, despite warnings from Reagan-era diplomats who worried about a former guerilla taking power. In El Salvador, if not Ukraine, perhaps the Cold War is finally over.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mike Evans
3 years 8 months ago
Our Lady of Arabia? Really? And a cathedral to boot, with apparently no crosses. Is this a religious monument or simply a structure to establish a major devotional presence?

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