From the “not what you might expect” files, here’s a fact about Catholicism in the early 21st century that flies in the face of conventional wisdom: It’s growing by leaps and bounds in the heart of the Muslim world.
Many Americans have heard or read reports about an exodus of Christians out of the Middle East, and in terms of the indigenous Arab Christian population that’s all too real. Christians now make up only 5 percent of the region’s population, down from 20 percent a century ago. In places like Iraq, whole Christian communities are on the brink of extinction.
Yet the Arabian Peninsula today is also, improbably, seeing one of the most dramatic Catholic growth rates anywhere in the world. The expansion is being driven not by Arab converts, but by foreign ex-pats whom the region increasingly relies on for manual labor and domestic service.
Filipinos, Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Koreans, and members of other nationalities are becoming the new working poor in some of the world’s wealthiest societies.
The result is a Catholic population on the peninsula estimated at around 2.5 million. Kuwait and Qatar are home to between 350,000 and 400,000 Catholics, Bahrain has about 140,000, and Saudi Arabia itself has 1.5 million.
Despite the triple handicaps of being poor, lacking citizenship rights, and belonging to a religious minority often viewed with suspicion, these folks are trying to put down roots for the faith, and having some surprising success.
Recently, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain agreed to donate land for the construction of a Catholic church, to be called “Our Lady of Arabia,” which will serve as the cathedral for the Vicariate of Northern Arabia. Without a church, the custom up to this point has been that guest workers who want to attend Mass generally go to one of the Western embassies, especially Italy’s, or they gather either in a private home or on the grounds of a foreign-owned oil company.
Bishop Camillo Ballin, a 69-year-old Italian and member of the Comboni missionary religious order, leads this burgeoning Catholic community. He was in the United States in early March to raise money for the cathedral, which he estimates will cost around $30 million. He spoke to the Globe during his trip.
Ballin termed the decision in Bahrain “a good sign of dialogue which should be imitated by other countries.”
Though Ballin has to walk a tightrope in talking about the situation his flock faces, he didn’t hide that fact that he lives in one of the world’s most difficult places to be a Christian.
“It’s not the policy of the governments of these countries to convert anyone or to impose Islam,” he said. “But those pressures are often applied by individuals and radical Islamic movements.”
Ballin said that sometimes Christian workers are promised better salaries or other perks if they convert, and they’re often forced to work schedules that make attending Mass on Sunday virtually impossible.
Given those realities, he acknowledged that erecting a church is a tricky proposition. In deference to Islamic sensitivities, he said, the new cathedral won’t have a cross at the top or any other outward sign of its Christian identity.
“In the Arabic world in general, this is a time of cruel fanaticism,” Ballin said. “We don’t want to provoke the fanatics by making ourselves a target.”
In any event, Ballin said, outward appearances are secondary.
“As Christians, external crosses are important, but they’re not essential,” he said. “The important thing is to witness with our lives that as Christians, we’re children of a Father who loves everyone.”
Ballin also concedes that while some Gulf states may be accommodating, Saudi Arabia remains a no-go in terms of putting up a church to serve its large Catholic minority.
“Muslims preach that the entire country is a big mosque, and they say you can’t build a church inside a mosque,” he said.
Ballin wouldn’t be drawn into discussing the merits of that claim, saying only that “the day we can build a church in Saudi Arabia will be a glorious day not just for the Saudis but for the whole world.”
Anyone concerned with avoiding a clash of civilizations ought to pray that this growing Christian presence constitutes a bridge with Islam and doesn’t become yet another flashpoint.
It also illustrates another truth, one which Americans are sometimes slow to grasp.
The typical Christian in the world today isn’t a middle-class white male in Dubuque pulling up to church in his Lincoln Continental. She is an impoverished black mother of four in Nigeria, or a Dalit grandmother in India, or an exploited Filipina maid in Saudi Arabia. They often face hardships that are hard for most American Christians, accustomed to material comfort and lacking any real experience of religious persecution, to fathom.
Until you get that, you won’t see the full story of Christianity in this era.
More information on the cathedral project in Bahrain can be found on the website of a Catholic relief agency called “Aid to the Church in Need”
A conversation on the church in Africa
Not so long ago, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who heads a Vatican department dealing with justice and peace concerns, was considered a strong contender to become the Catholic church’s first African pope since the fifth century.
In the run-up to the papal election last March, the streets of Rome were festooned with posters touting Turkson’s candidacy. To this day Turkson says he doesn’t know who was behind the campaign, which he called “amusing.”
I spoke to Turkson on March 7, in part to solicit reactions to Pope Francis’s first year in office for a separate story. In the course of our conversation, he touched on a couple of matters relating to the church in Africa, however, which are of interest all by themselves.
The world’s cardinals recently had two days of meetings with Francis to talk about issues related to the family, with some cardinals reporting afterwards that African prelates had opposed a softening of the church’s rules regarding divorced and remarried Catholics on the grounds that to do so might hurt their efforts to break the grip of polygamy in African societies.
Under current rules, Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment, a declaration from a church court that their first marriage was invalid, are barred from communion and other sacraments. For his part, Turkson said he doesn’t share the concern that relaxing that stand would create a headache back home.
“I don’t think giving consideration to the divorced and remarried would create any problem for the ministry of marriage in Africa,” he said.
Instead, Turkson said that what he’d like to see is a broadening of the church’s discussion, beyond the Western model of a two-parent nuclear family, to bring into view Africa’s experience of broader ties within a clan.
“For us, ‘family’ often means extended relationships within the clan, composed of several smaller family units together that give support to one another and provide rules for family life,” he said.
An exclusive focus on Western problems such as divorce and cohabitation, Turkson argued, risks leaving Africa out of the picture.
Turkson also took a question about the recent adoption of strong antigay laws in Uganda and Nigeria.
“Penalizing homosexuals is not the way to go,” he said, saying the Vatican has passed that message along to bishops in other African nations that might contemplate similar measures.
At the same time, Turkson objected to moves to impose sanctions or deny foreign aid to African nations that adopt these measures.
“We should not so quickly and readily penalize countries that aren’t ready to adopt Western models,” he said. “We should help them to broaden their horizons rather than punish them.”
“In time people will probably change their views,” he said, arguing that “penalizing them for not being able to move faster” may backfire, strengthening African support for criminalizing homosexuality rather than weakening it.
New appointments for financial reform
Pope Francis unveiled his picks on Saturday for a new council that will set policy for the Secretariat of the Economy, a body created by the pope in late February to foster transparency and accountability in Vatican finances.
With the appointments, the pope appeared to make headway on one pillar of his reform project, which is breaking the stranglehold of the Italian old guard, but not so much on another, which is promoting the presence of women in decision-making roles.
The council is composed of eight cardinals and seven lay experts, and there are only two Italians in the mix. Though representing a variety of nationalities, the lay experts tapped by the pope are all men.
Financial accountability has long been a cause that unites cardinals of differing outlooks, and that’s clear from the new panel. It includes Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Lima, Peru, an Opus Dei member seen as a strong conservative, as well as Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa, generally considered a moderate.
There’s one American in the mix, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who also serves as vice president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
The lay experts include Maltese economist Joseph F.X. Zahra, who headed up a panel Francis created in July to study the Vatican’s economic and administrative structures. The others come from Germany, France, Canada, Spain, Italy and Singapore.
When Francis named that commission over the summer, the lineup included one woman, a former Ernst and Young official named Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui. The Vatican felt burned, however, when it emerged that Chaouqui had sent out ill-advised tweets accusing a senior cleric of corruption and erroneously claiming Benedict XVI had leukemia, and later when racy photos of her circulated on the internet.
That background may help explain the pope’s caution, but the absence of any women in a group for which non-clerics are eligible is nevertheless likely to raise eyebrows
The papal anniversary
Thursday will mark the one-year anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, and the occasion likely will trigger an avalanche of media coverage. Cutting through it all may prove daunting, so I’m offering a quick guide to determine if something’s worth consuming.
The following are three common mistakes in framing the “Francis revolution.” If you stumble across one or more, it’s a good sign you can cut your losses and move on.
First is the “Francis good, Benedict bad” narrative. Think of this as the Rolling Stone temptation, since the tendency to style Francis as a repudiation of everything people didn’t like about his predecessor was shot through the magazine’s Jan. 28 cover story.
In some ways, of course, Francis is an obvious stylistic contrast with Benedict XVI. Where Benedict was cerebral and academic, for example, Francis comes off as populist and accessible; where Benedict’s sartorial tastes ran to crimson and lace, Francis is more informal.
The key facts, however, are these:
■ It was Benedict’s historical decision to resign that paved the way for Francis.
■ The two men like and admire one another, with Francis comparing having Benedict in the Vatican to having your grandpa at home.
■ Several of the reform measures for which Francis is drawing credit, including his push for financial glasnost at the Vatican, actually began under Benedict. Indeed, one could argue that on the critical matter of the child sexual abuse scandals, Francis actually lags behind Benedict in terms of how aggressive he’s been so far about pressing reform.
A second common mistake is to treat the Francis revolution as all style and no substance. The reality is, as Cardinal Vincent Nichols recently said in a Globe interview, what’s unfolding isn’t just “tinkering” but “radical renewal.”
One proof of the point came in Francis’s recent decision to create a new “Secretariat of the Economy” to impose financial discipline in the Vatican, and to name the legendarily no-nonsense Cardinal George Pell of Australia as his financial czar.
That move may not have the sex appeal of Francis’s symbolic gestures, such as spurning the papal apartment or inviting three homeless men and their dog (named Marley, by the way, for the reggae icon Bob Marley) to his birthday breakfast, but insiders realize there’s little a pope could do that would be more challenging to the Vatican’s old guard.
When that decision was announced, one could almost hear the sound of the tectonic plates of the church shifting in the direction of transparency and accountability.
Third and finally, some outlets may use the anniversary as an excuse to recycle fairly dated controversies, with the twist of positioning Francis as the solution rather than the cause.
Although a recent PBS documentary called “Secrets of the Vatican” had several strong points, including interviews with well-regarded Vatican experts, it also offered a couple classic examples of this tendency.
For instance, the piece raised real questions about the church’s mishandling of the child sexual abuse scandals, but it also gave uncritical voice to a fairly mythological notion of the Vatican as directly responsible for supervising every act committed by more than 400,000 Catholic priests around the world.
The documentary also treated scandals at the Vatican bank, and God knows there’s plenty of material. It didn’t really underscore, however, that a far-reaching reform of the bank’s operations began under Benedict XVI. It also didn’t highlight the point that while the bank has over $9 billion in assets under management, most of that isn’t Vatican money. It belongs to dioceses, religious orders and Catholic organizations around the world.
The bottom line is that the mere fact that somebody’s treatment of Francis may be favorable is no guarantee of balance on other fronts.
John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.