Christianity Today has a story on the spread of the gospel in the Arabian Peninsula.
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.
.... “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.
... His church participates in Easter services publicly on the beach. Last year, 39 expatriates were baptized in Gulf waters. And during this year’s celebration of the end of Ramadan, the ruling sheikh received Burgess and other local Christian leaders ahead of hundreds of prominent Emiratis jockeying in line for position.
“This was a message for those gathered,” Burgess said. “We believe God is answering prayer. We really need to get the message out that there are opportunities here that haven’t existed for 1,400 years.”
A quarter of Burgess’s fellowship identifies as non-Christian. Sixty percent had not attended church in years. Many are surprised by the opportunities to share their faith, even with Muslims, if done within a strong relationship.
“I never had more opportunities to preach the gospel end-to-end than I had here,” said Wael Qahoush, a Palestinian-American banking executive and deacon at Evangelical Community Church of Abu Dhabi (ECC). “I was apprehensive, always trying to hide my identity, and everyone wanted to ask me about Christianity.”
... In 1960, before the oil boom that propelled the region to immense wealth, missionaries with TEAM (The Evangelical Alliance Mission) were invited by tribal sheikhs to start a hospital in what is now the UAE after TEAM’s medical work in Kuwait and Bahrain attracted their attention. Half of local children and 35 percent of mothers were dying during childbirth.
In gratitude, the sheikhs allowed Oasis Hospital to operate a church. Today the Gospel of Luke and a copy of the Jesus film are available in patient rooms. Many royal family members were born in the hospital. In 2012, one paid for the national theater to host apologist Ravi Zacharias.
“God has shown this country the blessing of religious freedom, because of the kindness shown back then,” said Carol Rubish, a TEAM nurse.
But full religious freedom has not been extended to most Gulf citizens. The UAE barely made Open Door’s latest list of the 50 nations where it is hardest to be a Christian—but it still ranks at No. 49. Qatar is No. 18, and Saudi Arabia is No. 12. The US State Department notes restrictions in all Gulf nations, but officially designates only Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern.”
... Rather than complain and lobby for international advocacy, Christians work quietly within both social and market constraints. “God is in control of Qatar and the Gulf,” said Schwartz. “And we will work with him here.”
... Strong relations with the UAE’s royal family have also led to their endorsement of Thompson’s book, Jesus of Arabia, translating the message of the gospel into the culture of the peninsula. Complete with an appendix tackling Islamic perceptions of Christianity, it is a bestseller in the UAE.
Full Story is here.