Plans in the kingdom of Bahrain to build the nation's largest Roman Catholic Church have been challenged by complaints from Sunni Muslim clerics who have signed a petition against any motions to build churches in the Arabian Peninsula, which is regarded as the birthplace of Islam.
Bahrain, which is a constitutional monarchy ruled by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, is heavily Muslim, with 99 percent of Bahranian people identifying as either Shi'a or Sunni. Although the nation also has a significant Christian population, among which are Catholics and Protestant, no official figures exist on their precise count.
Religious freedom, while protected by the government, has been the subject of much contention. Sunni and Shi'a communities are engaged in sectarian battles, The Associated Press reported, and more than 70 Sunni clerks have warned against plans to expand the Roman Catholic Church in the Asian nation.
"Anyone who believes that a church is a true place of worship is someone who has broken in their faith in God," Sheik Adel Hassan al-Hamad, a prominent cleric, has said.
Looking to protect religious freedom, the government initially wanted to remove the cleric from his mosque in the district of Riffa – but after his supporters protested via social media sites and political blogs, the government abandoned those plans.
Bahrain, which is also the base of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, has seen more than 50 people killed in the last 19 months in incidents related to government unrest and religious tensions in the country.
"What Bahrain needs is to solve it is own internal issues rather than adding more new things that could be the source of troubles," commented Ali Fakhro, a Bahranian-based political analyst. "The plate is already full."
The plans for the Catholic Church are not gaining much support in the Shi'a communities either, with the AP report noting that many Shi'a mosques had been destroyed during violence between Bahrain's Muslim communities, and have not yet been rebuilt.
Still, the king's administration is backing the plans for the Catholic Church, which is said to be the size of a shopping center at around 97,000 square feet. It will serve as a base for the Vatican, and although the Catholic community in the Gulf region is small, hopes are that it will act as a spiritual center for other Christian denominations as well.
The Vatican has been implementing a plan to broaden its "apostolic district," according to the AP, with its main headquarters moving from Kuwait to Bahrain.
The local bishop for the region told the press agency in a statement that the new church project "is a sign of openness, important for Bahrain, and I hope it will serve as a model for other countries, too."
"Bahrain is a country of tolerance among all religions, sects and races. This is well known about Bahrain's history," explained the Rev. Hani Aziz of Bahrain's National Evangelical Church, who has spoken with the king over the project. "The construction of a church falls in line with this image."
Construction is set to begin within the next few months, unless further protests by Bahrain's Muslims hinders the project.