Saturday, March 24, 2012

Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula

From the Palestinian newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, published in London. Saturday/Sunday March 24/25, front page.

The Mufti of Saudi Arabia Calls for the Destruction of Churches in the Arabian Peninsula... And the Christians are Upset

The president of the Council of Senior Scholars and president of the Standing Committee for Scholarly and Fatwa Research, the general Mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Abd al-Aziz bin Abdallah Al al-Sheikh, issued a fatwa that it is obligatory to destroy all churches in the Arabian Peninsula.

The sheikh, who represents the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, ruled that the Arabian Peninsula submits only to the religion of Islam and that the existence of churches in some countries of the region is an admission of the truth of these religions.

The sheikh's latest fatwas came in the context of a response to a Kuwaiti civil society organization that proposed for the new Kuwaiti constitution that was approved by parliament last week, a new article that would forbid the building of new churches, a matter that provoked a wave of discontent among Christian minorities who live in the Arabian Peninsula, especially Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and Kuwait.

The Kuwaiti "Revival of Islamic Heritage Society" is close to Wahhabi ideology. It addressed a question to sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Abdallah Al al-Sheikh about "the soundness according to the shari'a of calls made by members of the Kuwaiti parliament for the banning or destruction of churches."

The Saudi Mufti's response was that, "Kuwait is a part of the Peninsula. The Arabian Peninsula must destroy all the churches that are in it, because permitting these churches is permitting a religion other than Islam. The Prophet, peace be upon him, commanded us and said, 'there cannot be two religions in the Arabian Peninsula'. Building them is not permitted in principle because this peninsula must be empty of all such things."

On his own part, the liberal Saudi writer Turki al-Hamad commented on the fatwa saying, "what if they treated us like this and destroyed our mosques in America and Europe? Would we condemn them?" Al-Hamad added, "How much need we have of a new religious and political discourse in this country, a religious discourse that respects the beliefs of others and a political discourse that accepts differences in society." He warned, "after the events at King Khalid University, this is a dangerous indication that large fires begin with a spark and the wise man is the one who tries to put out the spark before the fire breaks out by searching for its causes."

On Friday, the Austrian Council of Bishops strongly condemned the call made by the general mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the president of the Council of Senior Scholars, Abd al-Aziz bin Abdallah Al al-Sheikh.

In the press release that was issued at the end of the meeting in Tainach, southern Austria, they said, "For us as bishops, declarations of this type are absolutely unacceptable and incomprehensible, when at the same time there are a number of initiatives for dialogue between religions in the Arabian Peninsula."

The Austrian bishops said that declarations of this type not only threaten Christians in the Arabian Peninsula, but also throughout the world. The press release added that, "In a situation like the one we are passing through today, when the Arab revolutions are leading to disturbances  throughout the region, declarations of this type do not help people."

The Austrian news agency announced that on Friday the German bishops, represented by Bishop Robert Zollitsch, also condemned the call for destroying churches in the Arabian Peninsula.

Last October, Austria and Saudi Arabia opened a center for dialogue between religions in Vienna. There had been criticism of this plan in Austria because it came at the initiative and with funding from Saudi Arabia, which is governed by the extremist Wahhabi ideology. For his part, the Apostolic Nuncio in Kuwait expressed "great shock" at the declarations by the general mufti of Saudi Arabia Abd al-Aziz bin Abdallah Al al-Sheikh of the obligation to destroy all churches in the Arabian Peninsula.

From the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Qabas. Arabic text can be found here.

 Thirty Churches Serve Three Million Christians in the Gulf

The approximate number of residents in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council has reached almost 46,800,000 people, of them are 13 million immigrants, of whom 20% are Christian. This means that there are around three million Christians. They are spread across six countries , the greatest number being found in Saudi Arabia, in which there are no churches or any other non-Islamic places of worship.

The Christians of the Gulf are a mixture of Arabs, Asians, and Europeans and this total does not include Hindus, Buddhists, or Sikhs. It only includes Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestans, with Copts in the majority.

In general, the Christian communities enjoy freedom of worship in this countries, in churches specific to each sect.The exception is Saudi Arabia, which prohibits this activity even if there have been media leaks over the past four years about negotiations between the Kingdom and the Vatican in order to permit the building of a Catholic, given that there are almost 900 thousand Catholics living and working in Saudi Arabia.

In the past decade, some of the capitals of gulf countries have witnessed the building of a number of new churches, reflecting in practice the dialogue of religions and freedom of worship, translating into deeds language of a common life.

The Christians living in these countries practice their rituals at Christmas in freedom, within the churches that were recently built and which were subsidized by the majority of countries in the region with land. It is easy for a visitor to the Sheraton Towers in Kuwait or Abu Dhabi or Hayy Abu Hamour in Doha to see crowds of people going to the churches that stand in the heart of commercial centers.

The churches are prohibited from undertaking missionary activities or from distributing printed materials for the sake of propagating Christianity. This is a point of understanding and agreement with those overseeing the direction of the churches.

The number of Christian citizens native to the Gulf is limited to a few hundred, most of whom are in Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman, on account of the length of time that they have been present in this capitals. Kuwait is distinguished in this regard because it has the first Kuwaiti citizen who is a Christian clergyman, Fr. Emmanuel Gharib, pastor of the evangelical church there.

The majority of constitutions in the region grant freedom of worship and the right of religions to practice their rituals within their currently enforced laws.

The sound of church-bells is still faint, and you do not hear them in the cities of the Gulf as you do in other Arab cities like Beirut, Cairo, Aleppo, and Baghdad, for example. Perhaps this is because of the special characteristic of these gatherings and their lack of having adopted this type of demonstration.

Here follows a report on the state of churches and Christians in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Christians in Kuwait

According to the call by Member of Parliament Osama Munawar for the destruction of existing churches, then his retraction of this and his clarification after the uproar that was arose around it, he intended with his words to express his disagreement with building of new churches, on the basis of his religious and shari'a commitments. This opens a thorny issue in which there is much ill will and many misconceptions. It led the pastor of the Catholic church, Fr. Camillo Ballin, to address public opinion and Muslims, saying "You have nothing to fear from us. We are partners in life. We respect your laws and your traditions," asking the government to build a new church for the Catholics, whose number has reached 350 thousand people.

The building of new churches in Kuwait has been met with  militant and prejudiced reactions, while, according to standard procedures, a representative of the ministry of endowments and Islamic affairs in the first week of February of this year requested from the municipality to inform him of the number of churches in Kuwait and their geographic distribution in order to know how their grounds that were specified for each church are being used and if there are grounds designated for churches that are not being used.

Two years ago, in April 2010, Fr. Andrew Thompson of the British embassy released the book "The Christian Church in Kuwait: Religious Freedoms in the Gulf". In it, he shows that Kuwait has created a working model for a shared religious society. It includes the story of Christians in Kuwait and a discussion of the religious freedom that they enjoy, even though many British believe that since Kuwait is an Islamic country, it has no religious freedom!  He said that religious freedom in Kuwait is a living example of religious freedom in the Gulf and that Christians are an essential part of the society. He mentions that the first church in Kuwait was built in 1931 by the American Missionary Council and it was given the name the "National Evangelical Church" and was later known as the "Church of Christ". It became a member of the Middle East Council of Churches and in 1999 the Rev. Emmanuel Gharib was made the pastor of the church as the first Kuwaiti Christian clergyman.  In 1948 a church was built in the city of al-Ahmadi and it was named "Our Lady of the Arabian Peninsula".

Fr. Bigul, pastor of the Coptic church says that there was a correspondence between Pope Cyrill VI and the emir Sheikh Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah on the topic of building a church for Copts in Kuwait and this is in effect what happened. They found a location behind the Sheraton Hotel and have recently moved to Beirut Street. The presence of Armenian Christians in Kuwait goes back to 1958 and their number has reached six thousand people. They have a church and a school that has existed for almost fifty years, going back to the occupation.  The Christian sects have what is known as a council of churches that includes the various denominations, from the Catholic, Coptic and Evangelical churches to the Greek Orthodox church and finally the Armenians. There are eight recognized churches in Kuwait, while other sources say that the number of churches is ten, while the council of churches in the capital serves around 450 thousand Christians and Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs are not permitted to build places of worship. This has been a source of complaints and condemnation coming from the American State Department which publishes an annual report about freedom of religion in the Middle East. They consider Kuwait to be suffering from a contradiction between the text of the constitution which grants "absolute freedom" of religious belief and the governments' placing restrictions on the freedom of religious practice. The report points to the existence of religious groups that are not recognized by the government that practice their rituals in unofficial places of worship, most often in private homes.

Churches in the Emirates

Censuses indicate that the number of Christians in the countries of the United Arab Emirates have reached 500 thousand Christians, centered mostly in Abu Dhabi, el-Ayn, Dubai, and Sharjah. In these Gulf countries there are hundreds of nationalities of immigrants who were not permitted to practice their religious rituals openly and the building of churches was not permitted. Starting in the middle of the 1990's, the government began to permit the building of churches and today their number has reached seven. However, the authorities forbid the circulation of evangelical literature outside places of worship, preventing missionary activity. Four churches have been built in the city of Abu Dhabi, in addition to a center for the Evangelical community and the Church of St. Mary in the city of el-Ayn. Catholics make up the majority of Christians, some 100 thousand, in addition to the Anglical, Protestant, and Coptic Orthodox denominations. In Dubai, there is the Church of St. Francis in Jebel Ali and in Sharjah the building of a Russian Orthodox church was completed in 2007 on a 1000 square meter plot of land donated by the emirate at the cost of 30 million dirhams. The Orthodox are represented by the communities from Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia. Sharjah also has the Church of St. Michael for Catholics, who number some 50 thousand.

Christians in Qatar

Qatar has finally caught up with its Gulf neighbors and has permitted the first Evangelical church in 2005 after the emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani granted a plot of land, whose value was 20 million American dollars. Around 70 thousand Catholics live in Qatar, while the Evangelical church has between 7 and 10 thousand members, who formerly used the English school in the capital Doha as their place of worship.The first Catholic church was opened in 2008 and it has no external signs of Christianity, such as a cross, bells, markings, or statues. It is called the "Church of the Rosary". Today in Doha and in the neighborhood of Abu Hamour there is a council that includes five churches of each denomination, Orthodox, Evangelical, Protestant, and Catholic. This council serves around 200 thousand Christians out of 1,300,000 immigrants living in Qatar and approximately 500 thousand Qatari citizens.

The state of churches in Oman

The modern history of Christianity in the Sultanate goes back to 1893, when a group of Christians arrived in Masqat and bought a large building with a plot of land that they obtained as a gift from the Sultan. This group followed the American Reformed Church and came for missionary purposes. They then turned to providing medical services to and maintained their pastoral role for Christians. It should be mentioned that the Sultanate has around 500 Protestant Christians, while the Catholic church was founded in 1971, after it coming the Orthodox Church, the Syriac Orthodox church in Salala, and the church for the Copts in Masqat.

There is no precise account of the number of Christians in the Sultanate, which has a population of around three million people, of which 1,100,000 are immigrants, that is, no more than 29% of the population, while the number of Christians is between 200 and 300 thousand people, including Arabs, Asians, and Europeans. Omani census sources estimate that they make up 3% of the population.

Experts who follow the situation of Christians indicate that there are five groups for churches which in turn have established a council that includes all denominations, 26 in total. Oman has the distinction of being the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council in which there are temples for Sikhs and Hindus, while the Buddhist communty is working to build its own temple. According to the report of the American State Department on freedom of religion, there are places of worship for both Sikhs and Hindus.

The map of Christians in Bahrein

In Bahrain, according to reports, there is the oldest church in the Gulf region, which was built around 100 years ago. It was established by American Evangelical missionaries and is known as the National Evangelical (Protestant) Church, going back to 1906, according to the secretary of the church and its Arab society, Yousuf Haidar. He added that the number of Bahraini Christians includes around one thousand citizens bearing Bahraini nationality. The American mission has the post office box number 1 in the Kingdom, indicating its age. It is the first post office box in the history of Bahrain.

There are approximately four churches in Bahrain and there will be built a council of churches, as has been done in the Sultanate and in Qater, once the king of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa grants an appropriate plot of land and government permission is obtained. Among the known churches, there is Holy Heart Church, the Church of St. Christopher, and the Church of St. Mary. There are 30 officially registered churches, but they do not have buildings, including the Coptic church, which has yet to obtain its own church building.

As in the majority of countries of the Gulf, the churches are distributed among Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, and they practice their religious rituals with complete freedom. According to census reports, the number of Christians is over 250 thousand people out of 500 thousand immigrants and 700 thousand Bahreini citizens for a total of approximately 1,200,000 people.

It should be mentioned that the Shura Council includes two Bahraini Christian members, Ms. Elise Seman (of Iraqi origin) and Ms. Hala Ramzi Fayez (of Egyptian origin), whose father was one of the founders of the Ministry of Health in Bahrain.

Numbers and Churches

The number of Christians in Kuwait is over 450,000 people, according to the report of the American State Department. The Christian community includes the Roman Catholic Church, which has 300,000 members, the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has 70,000 members, the National Evangelical (Protestant) Church, which has 40,000 members, the Armenian Orthodox Church, which has 4,500 members, the Greek Orthodox Church, which has 3,500 members, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church which has 1,500 members. There are also other, unrecognized Christian groups including the Malankara Orthodox Church, the Mar Thoma Church, the Seventh Day Adventists, but there are no reports for their numbers. There are also around 300,000 Hindus, 100,000 Buddhists, 10,000 Sikhs, and 400 Baha'is.

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