Manama: Bahrain will donate land to build a new Catholic church in response to a request from Pope Benedict XVI, a religious leader has said.

"King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa will offer a plot of land to build a Catholic church as a gesture of good will towards the Pope's request. We hope that His Majesty the King's generosity will also include offering a plot of land to build a new evangelical church as well," Hani Aziz, the pastor of the National Evangelical Church, said in a press statement.

On Thursday, Benedict XVI praised Bahrain's religious tolerance and, expressing his gratitude for the Catholic church already in place, called for a new church to be built in the country.

Places of worship

"The Kingdom of Bahrain has an old tradition of tolerance and openness. It has welcomed many foreign workers who are taking part in the building of the country, and many of them are Catholic. Everyone is aware today that because of the rising number of Catholics, it would be desirable for them to have more places of worship," the pontiff said as he welcomed Naser Al Belushi, Bahrain's first ambassador to the Vatican who presented his credentials.

"Freedom of religion, which is among the rights guaranteed in your country's constitution, is of primordial importance because it affects what is deepest and most sacred to man: his relationship to God," the Pope told Al Belushi, the former ambassador to Washington.

"The changes the kingdom has experienced in the last few years are indicative of an ongoing concern for progress towards a society that is open to the world and to more fraternal relations with other nations, while at the same time remaining faithful to its own rightful traditional values."

Bahrain became the first country in the Arabian Gulf to build a Catholic church, the Sacred Heart Church, where the Christmas midnight mass was held in 1939.

The church today caters to Bahraini Christians, who are mainly Greek Orthodox, and to the Catholic community almost entirely expatriates from India, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, the Philippines and Western countries.

The church also has a large number of foreign parishioners from Saudi Arabia who cross the King Fahad Causeway, the 25-kilometre terrestrial link between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, to attend Christmas, New Year and Easter services.

The Roman Catholic Church in Bahrain is part of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, under the spiritual leadership of the Pope and curia in Rome.

Bahrain established diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1999.