Christian symbols are often kept away from public view in the Gulf region, such as this Catholic church in Doha (Our Lady of the Rosary) which has no cross.
Christian symbols are often kept away from public view in the Gulf region, such as this Catholic church in Doha (Our Lady of the Rosary) which has no cross. (World Watch Monitor)

Egyptian priests serving in the Arab Gulf region have held their first conference to discuss challenges faced in the heartland of Islam: “Challenges facing Gulf priests and their wives”.

The head of the largest group of Christians in the Middle East, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II led bishops and priests from congregations in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar for three days of reflection (2-4 August) in a monastery off the Cairo-Alexandria desert road.

Historically, Christianity predated Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. Within years of Muhammad’s mission, Jews and Christians were expelled from the region under Islam’s second Caliph Umar.

Since the petrol-fuelled economic boom in 1970s, Christian Egyptians joined millions of others in finding work in countries in the region.

According to unofficial estimates, thousands of Orthodox Copts are currently allowed to worship in fewer than 20 churches in five Gulf countries (the four above, plus Kuwait). Saudi Arabia remains the notable exception; all forms of worship other than Islam remain forbidden since Christians are forbidden to gather even privately.

While most Gulf churches are allowed to function “within set rules”, preaching the faith to Muslims “remains strictly prohibited,” said a priest to an Egyptian news site Aswat Masriya on condition of anonymity.

It often takes a “high-level” decree for a church to emerge. Still, “Gulf churches cannot display crosses nor ring their bells,” Aswat Masriya quoted the priest saying.

‘High-level’ decree

Still, growing congregations have resulted in Gulf churches getting their own archdiocese last March, directly under Pope Tawadros himself.

In 2013 a report by Deutsche Welle put Christians in the UAE at 9%, at roughly 10-12% in Kuwait, at a similar figure in Bahrain and fewer in Qatar and Oman.

Almost all are expatriates with limited-time work permits. Christians are seldom naturalised, and while Christian worship may be tolerated, Christians are often not allowed to invite locals to their services.

Several fatwas – Islamic religious edicts – have reiterated the prohibition against churches in the Arabian Peninsula. In July 2013, prominent Saudi cleric Saleh Al-Fawzan said “Muslims cannot allow Christians to build new churches in lands [newly] conquered. As for the Arabian Peninsula, no churches or other places of worship should remain.”

“[The Arab Peninsula] is the cradle of daawa; of Islam. Muhammad … said: ‘not but one religion should remain in the Arabian Peninsula‘”.

Since the fall of the last caliphate along with the Ottomans in 1924, most Muslim countries no longer apply the full set of rules of ‘dhimmitude’, by which Christians and Jews were placed under an all-pervasive ‘cover’ relating to what they could and could not do in matters of business, public profile and worship.

Still, according to Open Doors’ World Watch List 2016, all six rich Arab Gulf states rank within a list of 50 countries where Christians are under the most pressure.

Some like Saudi Arabia and Qatar top the list with a ‘very high’ persecution tag, ranking 14 and 21 respectively. Others, including Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain and Oman, get a ‘high’ -ranking in a row 41, 47, 48 and 50.