While restrictions on religion remain, most Arab nations pass the tolerance test enough for Christian ministry to continue.
In November, officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made a surprise announcement. Discovered among the white-hot sand dunes of Siniyah Island were the ruins of a 1,400-year-old Christian monastery, likely predating the rise of Islam.
Historians say that as Islam grew in influence in the seventh century, conversions to the new religion created what became the Arabian Peninsula of today. Tracing their lineage back centuries, Saudis, Emiratis, Qataris, Bahrainis, Omanis, and Yemenis today uniformly follow the creed of Muhammad.
The ancient monastery, however novel, is a relic of the past.
But what may be more surprising to many is that the modern Gulf is a mosaic of the present. Thriving Christian communities exist among the millions of migrant workers in the region. Church buildings are bursting at the seams, overflowing into rented hotels and movie theaters. Pope Francis has even visited—twice, including last month.
What explains this under-appreciated dynamic, in a region commonly understood to be a bastion of persecution? And in contrast, as Gulf nations tout their “tolerance,” what does it mean in reality?
The Arabian—or Persian—Gulf, located in western Asia between Iran and Saudi Arabia, is an extension of the Indian Ocean. Most of its neighboring peoples are Arabs, with Arabic as their official language, though dialects distinguish one region from another.
The nomenclature is controversial. Iran, the most-populous country adjacent to these waters with over 85 million citizens, has throughout its history designated the region as the Persian Gulf. Modern scholarship and historical records agree, going back at least 2,500 years to the time of the powerful Pars Empire.
But the nationalism of most of the Arab countries challenges the Iranian position and insists on designating it the Arabian Gulf. The 1958 coup of Abdulkarim Ghasem in Iraq, followed by anti-Iranian feelings in the region after Iran and Egypt ceased all diplomatic relations in 1960, led to a general Arab acceptance of Arabian Gulf over the alternate usage.
Six of the seven countries on the peninsula—variously structured as kingdoms, emirates, sultanates, or states—formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Abu Dhabi, UAE, in 1981. The aim of the GCC is to foster peace and security in the region and to develop economic relations among the member countries.
Alongside archaeological evidence, Syriac sources of the Church of the East, also known as the Nestorian Church, show that even after Muhammad conquered Mecca in 629, churches remained active in the region until disappearing in the late ninth century.
The Christian presence re-entered the Gulf with the first colonial ventures of the Portuguese in 1497, the establishment of the East India Company in 1600 by the British, the Dutch East India Company in 1602, and the American Arabian Mission in 1889. The Reformed Church in America (RCA) took over the Mission in 1894 and built the first schools for boys in 1905 and the first proper hospital in 1913.
In his analysis of local missionary ministry, Evangelism in the Region of the Arabian Gulf, Kuwaiti author Abdul Malik Al Tamimi asserts that the preaching of the gospel bore no fruit since no indigenous Christian community emerged. Still, a foundation for the future was laid since thousands of travelers, businessmen, and migrants from the Middle East and other places arrived in the Gulf and some of them established churches. But the fact remains that conversions among locals are not documented.
There is no single good explanation for this, wrote RCA missionary Lewis Scudder in The Arabian Mission’s Story. But he proposes that the missionaries’ success is evident in the remarkable acceptance that local populations afforded their service institutions, impacted by their Christian philanthropy and devotion.
Presently, the church in the Gulf is mainly expatriate. The region is rich in natural resources and has attracted many nationalities and ethnic groups, seeking employment and business opportunities. Nearly all Christian traditions exist in the Gulf, but the Catholic Church constitutes the biggest community.
Seventeen Gulf cities provide government land for more than 40 church buildings. Even though churches cannot own land, they have a certain degree of assurance from local authorities that the government will not take these properties back.
This privilege, however, is not extended to all denominations, which means that different ecclesial traditions share the same space. This “forced ecumenism” produces some wonderful examples of cooperation—and sometimes rivalry—as congregants learn to live together with a shared voice toward government officials, seeking a fruitful ministry among migrant workers.
But if foreign believers possess a general freedom of religion, local expressions are largely curtailed. Present laws in the Gulf do not allow the proselytization of Muslims. And although most Christian-background communities hold their worship services inside walled compounds, these are the only locations where scriptures and biblical literature may be distributed.
by HRAYR JEBEJIAN – christianitytoday