The building of the largest Catholic church in the Gulf was supposed to be a chance for the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain to showcase its traditions of religious tolerance in a conservative Muslim region where churches largely operate under heavy limitations.
Instead, the planned church – intended to be the main centre for Catholics in the region – has turned into another point of tension in a country already being pulled apart by sectarian battles between its Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities.
Hardline Sunni clerics have strongly opposed the construction of the church complex, in a rare open challenge of 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 Shiites demanding greater political rights.
Shiites account for about 70% of Bahrain’s population of just over half a million people, but claim they face widespread discrimination and lack opportunities granted to the Sunni minority.
The monarchy has also has relied heavily on help from ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, which last year sent troops to help crush protests.
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.
Instead, positions on all sides have hardened.
Many among the majority Shiites claim the Sunni monarchy is not interested in reforms that would weaken its near monopoly on power.
Bahrain’s most senior Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, has actively opposed the church plans, questioning why the government should donate land for a Christian site when Shiite mosques have been destroyed as part of the crackdowns.