Published: 00:00 GMT Standard Time - Monday 04 January 2010
The Middle East: Cradle of Christianity, Place of Persecution
Project(s): 20-246, 20-383, 11-819, 65-420, XX-212
The Middle East: Cradle of Chr...
The Middle East is seldom out of the headlines. For decades the region has been racked by wars and insurgencies, most recently in Iraq and the Holy Land. Fundamentalist forms of Islam in Saudi Arabia and Iran are growing in strength and influence well beyond the borders of these nations. Autocratic governments severely restrict political freedoms even in more secular countries such as Egypt and Syria. And the economic importance of the area, with its vast oil resources, gives Western governments a major stake in its stability and development.
Caught in the midst of these swirling currents are a number of large but vulnerable Christian communities. The Middle East is the birthplace of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith, and it is home to many historic churches that pre-date the dominance of Islam in the region. Now, however, these Christians are facing multiple dangers, to the point that the very survival of Christianity in some countries is currently in serious doubt.
This Regional Profile sketches the conditions endured by Christians in each part of the Middle East. As we shall see, whilst some of their sufferings and persecutions are common to them all, many national churches also face problems specific to their own contexts. The countries are discussed according to the size of their Christian communities, beginning with those where Christians are a tiny minority.
Saudi Arabia follows a puritanical version of Islam known as Wahhabism, which it propagates vigorously all over the world with the help of oil money. The government asserts that none of the country’s citizens are Christians. This claim is untrue, but the small number of Saudi Christians are mostly secret believers. In 2009 the authorities detained a blogger, Hamoud Bin Saleh, merely for writing about his conversion to Christianity on his own website. Saudi law is based on Islamic sharia, and it prescribes the death sentence for converts from Islam. Public Christian worship is forbidden, even for the large expatriate community, and Christians may be detained, assaulted or deported for meeting to pray together even in private.
Yemen’s Christian population numbers only some 3,000 among a population of more than 20 million. Most of these are expatriates, and the very few Yemeni believers have to practise their faith secretly for fear of severe reprisals. Yemen too has made apostasy from Islam legally punishable by death, although there are no reports of any executions in recent years. Converts to Christianity do however face arrest and torture by the notorious Political Security Office, and the possibility of extra-judicial killing. Expatriate Christians are generally free to worship, but evangelism among Muslims is illegal, and those suspected of it are in grave danger. In June 2009 three Christian students from overseas Bible and mission schools who were visiting Yemen to do humanitarian work were kidnapped and murdered. Six other people (including three small children) abducted at the same time are still missing at the time of writing.
The Gulf States of Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have sizeable expatriate churches, and these are mostly allowed to practise their faith quite freely. But again, sharing the Gospel with Muslims is forbidden, and the indigenous Christian communities are very small and have to operate mainly in secret. In all five countries Islam is the state religion, and in Bahrain all citizens are defined as Muslim. However, Islam takes a more conservative and repressive form in some states, such as Qatar, where apostasy is technically a capital offence punishable by death (although since the country’s independence in 1971 there have been no reports of converts’ being punished), than in others, such as Kuwait. Restrictions are imposed by governments on the number of visas available to pastors visiting from overseas and the size of worship venues.