The Persian Gulf is not an obvious destination for the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet when Bahrain's King Hamad met with Pope Benedict earlier this month in Rome, he extended a personal invitation to visit. If Benedict takes him up on the offer, he'll become the first pontiff to set foot in Arabia.
What would make that trip so dramatic is the region's reputation for religious intolerance. Bahrain's new hospitality shows that attitudes are changing. And the explanation lies in demographics. The kingdom and its neighbors are hosts to booming new Christian populations, thanks to the region's insatiable hunger for guest workers. Foreign laborers now represent 35 percent of Bahrain's inhabitants. The number is 60 percent in Kuwait and 80 percent in the United Arab Emirates, and almost half of the 35 million people on the Arabian Peninsula are now foreign-born. A large proportion of them hail from Christian areas such as the Philippines and southern India. As a result, Christians now constitute roughly 9 percent of Bahrain's population. In Saudi Arabia, the Catholic Church estimates there are 1.2 million Filipino faithful alone, making them the country's third largest immigrant group.
Until now, such workers have had to worship in private. Parishes in the area are few and far between: the Catholic Church has just 20 serving the entire Arabian peninsula. Some, such as St. Mary's in Dubai, employ teams of priests who care for hundreds of thousands. Yet as the numbers of Christians increase, their leaders are starting to press the Gulf's rulers to allow more churches and places of worship to set up shop. And the monarchs are slowly responding: according to Bishop Paul Hinder, the pope's representative in Arabia, the region's governments are even "competing" with each other to launch interfaith initiatives.
So far, Bahrain leads the pack with its papal invitation. But Qatar and the U.A.E. are also making progress: in March, the first Catholic Church opened in Doha, and last year the head of the Egyptian Coptic Church met government officials in Abu Dhabi. Even the region's most inflexible Sunni state, Saudi Arabia, is now relaxing its traditional animosity toward Christianity (and all other religions). Earlier this month King Abdullah took the unprecedented step of hosting a major interfaith meeting in Madrid with senior figures from Islam, Christianity and Judaism. This followed his own meeting with the pope last year in Rome and modest improvements in domestic religious tolerance.
Ironically, Arabia's softer stance comes at a time when Europe Islamophobia is growing. Still, though Arab leaders are growing more tolerant, they've a long way to go before Gulf Christians enjoy the same freedoms as worshipers of all faiths do in the West.