The Evolving Condition of Christians in the Gulf

Jean-Loup Samaan
Middle East Department, NATO Defense College

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The current situation of Christians in the Gulf has to be considered in the broader context of Christians in the Arab world. In recent years, significant numbers of Christian Arabs left their home countries for the Gulf, where the economic prospects and social stability looked brighter. The more the Middle East slides into sectarian conflicts (whether in Syria, in Iraq or in Lebanon), the more Christian Arabs will see the Peninsula as a safe haven. But this does not mean the area is a case study of ideal Christian-Muslim coexistence. Many measures need to be implemented in order to raise the standards of religious freedom in these countries.

Compared to the Levant, the Christian population in the Persian Gulf has always remained extremely modest and is unlikely to experience a dramatic increase. In coming years, there is little chance that the size of the Christian communities there will reach a threshold where they could challenge the traditional primacy of the Muslim community in the region. However, there are at least two reasons for recognizing the presence of Christians in the Gulf as an important topic. First, the economies of Gulf Arab monarchies still rely on considerable numbers of expatriates from countries where Christianity prevails, and it is they who make up the bulk of the Christians in the Peninsula. Second, Christian Arabs fleeing the threat of sectarian persecution in their home countries (Copts in Egypt, Orthodox Christians in Syria, and Maronites in Lebanon) often see the Gulf States as safer and more prosperous locations.

The coexistence of Christians and Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula, a land which many consider the most sacred in the Islamic world, is not without its difficulties. Statecraft in the Gulf Arab kingdoms is intrinsically associated with Islam, and with its strong influence on social, economic and political life. As a result, Christian-Muslim tensions have sometimes resurfaced in recent years, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, regarding questions such as the building of churches and freedom of worship.

However, it would be a mistake to approach the story of Christians in the Gulf from a single perspective and depict these countries as merely oppressing the Christian minority. A careful look at the conditions of Christians in the region reveals heterogeneous situations, with varying social status within each of the countries concerned. It also shows that, despite its limited size, the history of the Christian presence in the Gulf can be traced back to the 4th century A.D. In addition, the situation of Christians in the Gulf is in a sense paradoxical. Although societies in the Peninsula do not have the same tradition of multiconfessional coexistence as in the Levant, the relative stability and safety of the regimes concerned make them attractive destinations for Arab Christians who feel threatened elsewhere in the Middle East.

Such is the background against which this paper examines the situation of Christians in the Gulf, first looking briefly at the history and development of these communities and then focusing on current political issues related to them.

The presence of Christians in the Gulf: a brief historical overview   

According to historical accounts, Christianity appeared in the Persian Gulf when missionaries visited the region in the second half of the 4th century A.D. In the following century, the Christian presence in the Peninsula increased with the appearance of the Nestorians. Nestorianism was a Christian doctrine advanced by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431 A.D., who considered the human and divine natures of Jesus as separate. Such an idea went against the orthodox Christian doctrine of the hypostatic union (Christ as fully God and fully man), eventually leading to a deep conflict between Nestorius’ followers and Church leaders. After a schism with the latter, Nestorians relocated to Persia.

When the King of Persia became concerned with the influence of Nestorianism among the population, the movement migrated to Oman and al Hasa on the eastern coast of the Peninsula. There, Nestorians started to build churches and a small number of inhabitants converted to Christianity. However, the birth and expansion of Islam in the 7th century A.D. curbed any further development of Christianity in the region, and the efforts of missionaries in subsequent periods of history met with only very limited success.

When Islam first appeared, there were Christian merchants in Mecca. In Yemen and Saudi Arabia, there were significant Christian communities. For instance, the presence of an oligarchy of Christian merchants in the city of Najran in south-western Arabia is widely documented. Najran had a Bishop, called Abu Harithah ibn Alqamah. The existence of Christians in the Peninsula is even documented in the Quran, which reports an interesting exchange between the Prophet and a delegation from Najran which was visiting Medina. The Christian delegates asked the Prophet:

“What do you say about Jesus? Since we are Christians, we would like to know your opinion so that we may be able to tell our people.”

The answer from the Prophet was:

“Jesus, in Allah’s view, is the same as Adam: He created him from dust and said to him, ‘Be’, and he was. This is the truth from your Lord. Be not, therefore, one of the doubters. Should anyone argue with you about him after what has been given to you of true knowledge, say to them: let us call our children and your children, our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves. Let us all pray and invoke the curse of Allah on the liars.”[1]

In the early stages of Islam, it can be argued that the Caliphate was “an Empire in which a small Muslim elite ruled a largely Christian population”.[2] Against this background, Christians in the Arabian Peninsula had only two choices: to convert to Islam, or leave. Their situation thus proved very different from that of Christians in the Levant, where the Caliph Umar granted the community formal status on the basis of charters of protection agreed between the Caliph and the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Over the following centuries, the Peninsula would become overwhelmingly Muslim while Christianity would decrease in importance. In 1568, the Jesuits abandoned their mission in the Gulf. Later, the Augustinians also left.[3]  

Despite these setbacks in the missionaries’ efforts and the limited size of the Christian community in the Gulf, the Vatican maintained an institutional presence in the region. On 28 June 1889, Pope Leo XIII founded the Vicariate Apostolic of Arabia. Under the territorial jurisdiction of the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, the Vicariate was created to take responsibility for the following countries: Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Somalia and Yemen. Kuwait was established as an independent Apostolic Prefecture in 1953 and then, in 1954, raised to the status of an Apostolic Vicariate. In 2011, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples transferred some additional territory of the Vicariate Apostolic of Arabia to this jurisdiction, thus creating the present-day administrative structure: the Vicariate Apostolic of Southern Arabia (Oman, UAE, Yemen), and that of Northern Arabia (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia).

While reliable demographic data on the size of the region’s Christian communities is not available, they are thought to constitute between 5 and 10% of the total population in the Gulf. Most of the Christians in the Peninsula come from the migrant population (particularly from Asian countries), as the number of Christian natives of the Gulf is estimated as no more than a few hundred (mostly in Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman and Bahrain).

In Kuwait, the Catholic Church estimates that it has a congregation of 350,000 (mostly expatriates), making up 6% of the total population.[4] In addition, 100,000 other non-Kuwaiti Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, the National Evangelical Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Greek Catholic Church and the Anglican Church.

In Oman, it is estimated that 2.5% of the population are Christians, mostly living in the major cities such as Muscat, Sohar and Salalah. Of a total 3,200,000 inhabitants, 120,000 are Catholics. The Christian presence dates back to 1893, when a group from the American Reformed Church arrived in Muscat. The initial aim was the evangelization of the population, but the focus then shifted more realistically to the provision of health services for the Omanis. The Catholic Church arrived in the country in 1971, followed by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Coptic Church.

In the UAE, out of a population of six million, five million are foreign workers, including an estimated 1,500,000 Christians who mostly live in the Emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, El Ayn and El Shariqa. Of the Christian community in the UAE, 20% are Catholic; the rest are Anglicans, Orthodox Christians and Copts.

In Qatar, 110,000 out of a total 1,200,000 inhabitants are Catholics. According to the US Department of State, Roman Catholics represent 20% of the non-citizen population. In addition, there are small groups of Egyptian Copts and Greek Orthodox Christians.[5] The Catholic mission in Qatar dates back to 1956.

In Bahrain, out of one million inhabitants, 65,000 are Catholics. Bahrain is a historical location for Christianity in the Gulf: “Bet Qatraye”, the name of the ecclesiastical province that covered modern-day Bahrain, was a major centre for Nestorianism in the 5th century. As Nestorians were persecuted by the Byzantine Empire, they found safety in the uncontrolled province of Bahrain. The contemporary names of some villages in the kingdom evidence the Christian footprint – for example, Al Dair (“the monastery” in Arabic) on the northern coast of Muharraq Island. Bahrain was also the first country in the Gulf to build a church. This dates back to 1906, when Bahrain was a protectorate of the United Kingdom.

In Saudi Arabia, out of a population of 27.5 million, eight million are immigrants. Among these, it is estimated that approximately a million are Roman Catholics.[6] The majority come from the Philippines and India.

Political implications of the Christian presence

Because religion and politics fundamentally overlap in Gulf monarchies, it is difficult not to discuss the conditions of Christians in the region without looking first at the role of minorities in Islam. There have always been competing interpretations on this sensitive topic. One school argues that the concept of “umma” (loosely translated into “community” or “nation”) implies preferential treatment for Muslims at the expense of all other religious communities. On the other hand, some Quran scholars underline the need expressed in the holy book for a pluralist society that would comprise not only Muslims but also others – both believers and non-believers[7]. In this perspective, the “people of the Dhimma”, the common term for non-Muslims in Islamic States, should be granted equal rights. However this pluralistic vision of coexistence between Islam and religious minorities is not a consensual one. Muslim scholars such as Ibn Hamz have argued that non-Muslims had to recognize the sacred status of the Prophet and to honour him if they wanted to benefit from “dhimma” (meaning protected status).[8]

Beyond doctrinal discussion, policies in the Gulf concerning the Christian community vary greatly from one country to another. In Saudi Arabia, the 1992 Basic Law rules that religious law is the law. As a result, the Sharia informs jurisprudence. The very concept of freedom of religion is not recognized in the country, and the public practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited. This explains why churches are not allowed in Saudi Arabia. There have been numerous cases of human rights abuses in this respect. In 2011, the government arrested 35 Ethiopian Christians after a Christian prayer service and imprisoned them without charges. Several human rights groups have claimed that they were actually arrested for practicing their Christian faith.[9]

In the UAE, living conditions for Christians are among the best in the region. The constitution officially guarantees the “freedom to exercise religious worship […] in accordance with established customs, provided that it does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals”.[10] In the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, the construction of the first church started in 1962. In the entire federation, there are now seven churches. According to the law, churches cannot erect bell towers or display crosses outside their premises. However, the government has proved to be indulgent in this respect and some churches do display crosses on their buildings.[11] In addition, Christian symbols are widely visible, such as Christmas trees and other decorations in malls and hotels during the winter holidays. Significantly, the UAE established diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 2007. Then, in May 2010, Hissa Ahmed Al-Otaiba was appointed first Ambassador of the UAE to the Vatican. The nomination was described as an “historic moment in our diplomatic relations” by Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vicar Apostolic of Arabia.[12]

Qatar too has moved towards greater inclusion of its Christian community. Christianity is one of only three religions recognized by law (together with Islam and Judaism). Despite certain signs of displeasure among the locals, the Qatari leadership has tried over the last few years to promote the image of a moderate country. Admittedly, the government closely monitors the activities of Christian congregations, prohibiting them for instance from advertising religious services. Although Qatar’s support to Islamist parties in the Arab world, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, is widely documented, the Emirate also makes efforts to engage with Christians. In October 2013, the influential Lebanese Maronite patriarch Bishara al-Rai visited Doha to urge Qatari authorities to intervene in the negotiations over the release of two Syrian bishops abducted in northern Syria.[13] Some years earlier, it was in Qatar that the Israeli-Arab Christian parliamentarian Azmi Bishara sought refuge when he was accused of treason by the Israeli authorities in 2007.[14] Importantly, on 14 March 2008, the country opened its first church, the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. The building cost around $20 million. This 2,700-seat church was built on land donated by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani.

This project fuelled significant anti-Christian sentiment among the population. When interviewed by the Qatari channel Al Jazeera, a local school teacher stated: “I’m not OK with it, I feel that being a Muslim country, they should not allow a church to be here”.[15] Due to apprehensions over discontent in the local population, security patrols were deployed to monitor the complex. In addition, the exterior of the church has no obviously Christian features such as a cross or a bell tower.

In Oman, Christian worship is protected through Basic Law, which prohibits discrimination based on religion and considers it a criminal offence to defame any faith. If apostasy is legally not a crime, a father who abandons Islam loses his paternal rights over his children. Generally, the sultanate has been seen as one of the most tolerant in the Peninsula. There have not been any significant reports of abuses against religious freedom, although issues like the lack of space for non-Muslims to practice their religion have been raised.[16]

In Kuwait, the first church was the National Evangelical Church, dating back to 1931. A Coptic church was built in 1958, later followed by an Armenian Church. However, the limited Christian presence in Kuwait has for some years been the object of fierce political battles between the Emir and the Islamists. The Kuwaiti constitution theoretically provides for religious freedom. However, this is in obvious contradiction with other laws and policies that enforce restrictions. State arrangements to defend freedom of religion have been met with defiance. In February 2012, Harakat al Adala (the Movement of Justice) introduced legislation in the Parliament to remove Christian churches from Kuwait and impose Islamic Law. Party representatives later rectified this, specifying that it would not remove pre-existing churches but would prevent any further construction of “churches and non-Islamic places of worship”.[17] The minister of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, as well as members of the ruling family, condemned these remarks. As the Christian community barely constitutes a demographic threat in Kuwait, this move from Harakat al Adala may be understood as a populist tactic using the issue of non-Muslim presence in the country to put pressure on the Emir al Sabah. It should also be noted that, in August 2012, the Roman Catholic Church moved the seat of the Vicariate of Northern Arabia from Kuwait to Bahrain, due to the difficulties experienced with obtaining adequate numbers of visas in Kuwait.

This Kuwaiti controversy has led to even more worrying reactions throughout the region. In particular, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, declared publicly that it is “necessary to destroy all the churches in the region. There are not to be two religions in the Peninsula”.[18] The Grand Mufti, who was speaking in the context of a meeting with a delegation in Kuwait, is the highest official of religious law in Saudi Arabia. He is the head of the Supreme Council of Ulema and of the Standing Committee for Scientific Research and Issuing of Fatwas.

The statement by the Grand Mufti created significant controversy. Christian bishops in Germany, Austria and Russia publicly condemned the declaration. Archbishop Mark of Yegoryevsk, the head of the Russian Orthodox department for churches abroad, called the speech an “alarming” sign regarding the treatment of Christian minorities in the Peninsula. In Germany, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, stated that Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah “shows no respect for the religious freedom and free co-existence of religions”.[19] One aspect of the controversy is the exact extent of backing for the Mufti’s statement by the Saudi regime. The fact that King Abdullah may condone such speeches, while also advocating interfaith dialogue, underlines the inherent contradiction in Saudi Arabia’s position vis-à-vis its Christian community.

Christians in Gulf monarchies by and large hold no important position in the State, which remains controlled by Sunni representatives close to the royal families. However, there are some significant exceptions. One of the most interesting cases is that of Alice Samaan, a well-known politician in Bahrain. Samaan is the daughter of Christian immigrants who left Syria to settle in Bahrain and were granted citizenship. A teacher at the American Mission School, in 2005 Samaan became the first woman to chair a session of the Bahraini Parliament. After two terms in the Shura Council, Bahrain’s upper house, in 2010 Samaan was appointed Ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Finally, the current situation of Christians in the Gulf has to be considered in the broader context of Christians in the Arab world. In recent years, significant numbers of Christian Arabs left their home countries for the Gulf, where the economic prospects and social stability looked brighter. As mentioned before, the more the Middle East slides into sectarian conflicts (whether in Syria, in Iraq or in Lebanon), the more Christian Arabs will see the Peninsula as a safe haven.

In Iraq, years of civil war have drained the country of its Christian community: it dwindled from 800,000 people in 2003 to 500,000 in 2009. Similarly, many Lebanese Christians have left their country over the last two decades. In Syria, the protracted civil war is turning into a sectarian conflict, with the Christian minority accused of supporting the Assad regime. As a result, Syrian Christians have also started to leave their country for safer places such as the Gulf. The paradox is that, for these Arab Christians, the Gulf States – despite their legal and social restrictions concerning Christian worship – are by default becoming locations of choice as places of refuge from sectarian clashes in the Middle East.   

But this does not mean the area is a case study of ideal Christian-Muslim coexistence. Many measures need to be implemented in order to raise the standards of religious freedom in these countries. Issues such as the building of churches, the public display of worship or the very access of Christians to influential political positions remain contentious. In fact, one could argue that at best the current status quo will be preserved.

01/13/2014


[1] Quoted in Adil Salahi, “Prophet Muhammad Meets Najran Christians”, onislam.net, [The Quran, Al-Imran 3: 59-61].

[2] Trevor Mostyn, Albert Hourani (Eds), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Middle East and North Africa, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 190.

[3] For a comprehensive account of the Christian missions in the Peninsula, see Tamm Abdal-Malik Khalat The Arabian mission: a case study of Christian missionary work in the Arabian Gulf region, Durham University, PhD dissertation, 1978.

[4] “Kuwait: No new churches”, The Compass, 13 March 2012.

[5] US Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report, Qatar Report, 2012. Available at: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm?year=2012&dlid=208410

[6] Edward Pentin, “The Changing Faiths of the Persian Gulf”, National Catholic Register, 21 June 2010.

[7] David Sorenson, An Introduction to the Modern Middle East, Boulder, New York, Westview Press, 2008, p. 64.

[8] Muhsin S. Mahdi, Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001, p. 145.

[9] US Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report, Saudi Arabia Report, 2012. Available at:  http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm?year=2012&dlid=208410

[10] US Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report, United Arab Emirates Report, 2012. Available at:  http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm?year=2012&dlid=208416

[11] Ibid. 

[12] Rym Ghazal, “UAE Ambassador to meet Pope”, The National, 20 May 2010.

[13] Amer Al Sabaileh, “Christian Salvation in the Middle East”, Blog post, amersabaileh.blogspot.it, 5 November 2013.

[14] Sultan Al Qassemi, “Shameful Plight of the Middle East's Christians”, Huffington Post, 14 May 2009.

[15] Shabina Khatri, “Qatar opens first church, quietly”, Aljazeera.com, 20 June 2008.

[16] US Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report, Oman Report, 2012. Available at:   http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm?year=2012&dlid=208406

[17] « Kuwait: No new churches »,The Compass, 13 March 2012.

[18] Simon McCormack, “Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Abdullah, Saudi Islamic Leader, Says Churches Should Be Destroyed”, Huffington Post, 2 April 2012.

[19] Reuters, “Europe bishops slam Saudi fatwa against Gulf churches”, 24 March 2012.