Medical missions and market dynamics lead to millions of believers in the Arabian Peninsula.
Sam Espada led friends in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” for his sombrero-wearing brother at a Mexican restaurant. After dinner, they saw the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
The five-story mall could have been anywhere in America, except that every storefront sign was in Arabic as well as English. The group was in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
“This place is like Disneyland,” said Espada, a Christian from New Jersey. “But I don’t feel fully free. You can definitely tell you are living in a Muslim country.”
Espada, an architect, is one of the millions of foreign workers transforming the former desert oasis into a global center for business and travel. The UAE’s Dubai is the fifth-fastest-growing city in the world; its population is now more than 80 percent migrant.
The great majority of migrant workers in the region come from India and Southeast Asia, sometimes suffering exploitation in labor camps to send a collective $100 billion back home. As an American, Espada is unusual.
But as a Christian, he is not. Today the Pew Research Center numbers Christians in the Arabian Peninsula at 2.3 million—more Christians than nearly 100 countries can claim. The Gulf Christian Fellowship, an umbrella group, estimates 3.5 million.
These migrants bring the UAE’s Christian population to 13 percent, according to Pew. Among other Gulf states, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar are each about 14 percent Christian, while Oman is about 6 percent. Even Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest cities (Mecca and Medina), is 4 percent Christian when migrants are counted.
Together, they represent the largest Christian community in the Middle East outside of Egypt. But their experiences vary considerably.
In Bahrain and Kuwait, Muslims can enter church compounds. In Qatar, guards allow only foreigners. Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti (the nation’s highest official of religious law) has called for all churches in the peninsula to be destroyed.
Surprising to many observers is how many of these churches there are.
“We don’t really face persecution; we face misunderstanding,” said Bill Schwartz, formerly with YWAM, now the Qatar-based priest responsible for the Anglican Church’s work in the Arabian Gulf. “But we are building churches in every country except Saudi Arabia, and have good relationships with all governments.”
At least 17 Gulf cities provide land for more than 40 church buildings. Through them, the Bible Society in the Gulf legally distributed 41,000 Bibles, 10,000 New Testaments, and 115,000 pieces of Christian literature in 2013. “It shows the Christian community is here to stay,” said general secretary Hrayr Jebejian.
“People in the West measure religious freedom exclusively by the freedom of Muslims to convert,” said Schwartz, but he believes this view is too narrow. He grants that restrictions exist, and believes Islam at best “tolerates” non-Muslims. But the general freedom that Christians have to worship in much of the Arabian Peninsula issues from the Muslim faith and should be appreciated, he said.
Thanks also to global capitalism, that freedom is not going away.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Jayson Casper in the United Arab Emirates