Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Pope Francis in Bahrain: A Royal Reminder of Religious ‘Freedom of Choice’

Image: Loredana Mantello / Getty Images

After greeting Pope Francis last week with a red carpet, a 21-gun salute, and a contingent of horses to accompany his humble vehicle, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa highlighted one document to characterize his realm:

The 2017 Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration.

“[Bahrain is] a cradle of mutual coexistence between followers of different faiths,” he said, “where everyone enjoys, under our protection after that of God Almighty, the freedom to perform their rituals and establish their places of worship, in an atmosphere of familiarity, harmony, and mutual understanding.”

With Bahraini flags flying side by side with the Vatican banner, Francis was profuse in his praise. Enduring severe knee pain, he noted the country’s centuries-old “Tree of Life,” a 32-foot acacia that somehow survives in the Arabian desert.

Bahrain honors its roots.

“One thing stands out in the history of this land: It has always been a place of encounter between different peoples,” said Francis. “This is in fact the life-giving water from which, today too, Bahrain’s roots continue to be nourished.”

In the island nation the size of New York City, flanked on either side by Iran and Saudi Arabia, from November 3–6 the pope visited its 160,000 Catholic migrants—primarily from the Philippines and India—living among a population of 1.5 million, evenly divided between foreign workers and citizens.

From 111 nationalities, 30,000 gathered this past Saturday at the national stadium for Mass.

Bahrain is a Sunni Muslim monarchy ruling over a narrow majority of Shiites. Christians comprise 10–14 percent of the population, with up to 1,000 Christian citizens originally from Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan who were present at the time of independence. Alongside a 200-year-old Hindu temple, a renovated synagogue hosts prayer for Bahrain’s few dozen Jewish citizens.

But beside pastoral responsibilities, Francis came prepared to preach.

At the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence, his message was a near homily on the 2017 declaration. Addressing over 200 religious leaders from the Gulf, he urged their leadership and introspection. “It is not enough to grant permits and recognize freedom of worship,” Francis said. “It is necessary to…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 11, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Closing the Bible Gap in the Gulf

Bible Engagement Gulf
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source Images: Pexels

This article first published at Christianity Today, on February 5, 2020.

Joining 80 leaders from 24 countries in Washington, DC, last September, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) announced 2020 to be the Global Year of the Bible.

“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” said WEA general secretary Ephraim Tendero. “In contrast to the sacred writings of many other traditions, the Bible is meant to be read and understood by all people.”

But what if they cannot read? This is the case for up to 40 percent of the 1.5 million Telugu-speaking workers in the Gulf states. Having dropped out of school in their native India, these migrants find that the crowded labor camps of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain offer the best opportunity to support their families back home.

But having come to the glitzy Gulf to gain a meager share of petrodollars, many find also the spoken—and storied—words of Jesus.

In 2019, the Bible Society of the Gulf (BSG) was awarded “Best Mission Project” by the United Bible Societies (UBS). Honored in the category of “Focusing on Audiences,” BSG’s pioneering audio and storytelling work among illiterates distinguished it among the 159 UBS branches worldwide.

“We help migrant workers rediscover themselves as children of God,” said Hrayr Jebejian, BSG general secretary. “Through the faith and hope of scripture, they gain the strength to navigate their many challenges.”

Jebejian’s book, Bible Engagement, noted during the UBS ceremony, described the long working hours, high rates of suicide, and…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.


Giving Thanks, for Khartoum and Kennedy

Thanksgiving Khartoum Kennedy
via Mormon Newsroom and Mohamed Al Hammadi / Crown Prince Court – Abu Dhabi

Happy Thanksgiving to all American friends. Religious freedom is one item of gratitude, as well as positive signs it may be developing around the world.

Consider again these promising signs I’ve been privileged to report on the past two years:

Arab Gulf — Why Christianity is Surging in the Heart of Islam

Indonesia — World’s Biggest Muslim Organization Wants to Protect Christians

Morocco — Arab Christians and the Marrakesh Declaration

Egypt — Let My People Build

Bahrain — Saudi Arabia’s Neighbor Defends Religious Freedom of Individuals

Saudi Arabia — The Game of Thrones Christians Should be Watching

Italy — Muslims Work for Religious Freedom


Not all is rosy, of course, and some nations pretend nothing is wrong.

Sudan is one of them. But in recent engagement, the United States has religious freedom on the agenda for improvement of ties and removal of sanctions.

As Crux has reported:

A leading U.S. diplomat visiting Sudan said the United States is willing to work with the Sudanese government to help it achieve the conditions necessary to remove its designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” in the U.S. State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report.

Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan was speaking on Nov. 17 at the Al-Neelain Mosque in Omdurman, located on the western bank of the Nile River, which separates it from the national capital.

Sullivan said “supporting human rights, including religious freedom, has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of the United States’ bilateral engagement with Sudan.”

The event at the mosque included leading Muslim and Christian clergy. Sudan is 97 percent Muslim, and the small Christian community has faced harassment, especially since the predominantly Christian and animist south of the country became the independent state of South Sudan in 2011.

The State Department’s 2016 International Religious Freedom Report cited reports of government arresting, detaining, or intimidating Christian clergy and church members, denying permits for the construction of new churches, closing or demolishing existing churches and attempting to close church schools, restricting non-Muslim religious groups and missionaries from operating in or entering the country, and censoring religious materials and leaders.

There is always room for cynicism, and perhaps frequently it is warranted.

Does the United States care more for counterterrorism and military contracts, and will let this item slide if progress is seen elsewhere?

Will Sudan put on a nice face and make superficial improvements, only to squeeze non-Muslim communities once the diplomats leave?

Maybe. But this Thanksgiving, let not cynicism be a landing place. Even the public rhetoric of religious freedom is something to celebrate. It sets a tone; attitudes can adjust over time.

And as the US ambassador told his Sudanese audience, it took a while in America.

“I am the grandson of Irish-Catholic immigrants who arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in the 1880s. At the time they arrived – and for many decades that followed – Catholics in the United States faced widespread prejudice based on their religion,” he said.

“When John F. Kennedy – another Catholic from my home state – ran for president of the United States in 1960, he even had to give a prominent speech to reassure the nation that his faith was compatible with the duties of the office of president.”

Sullivan said recalling such history “seems quaint” today, but added it took many decades – “it was not easy” – to reach the point where it is “nearly unthinkable” that one’s status as a Catholic in the United States would serve as a disadvantage to a person’s ambitions for life.

“The American experience in this regard underscores that respect for the human dignity of every person – regardless of religious belief or origin – is a key component of not only protecting human rights, but also fostering a society that can flourish, build upon each other’s strengths, and move forward together,” he said.

America has had flaws, too. She still has some, and may be developing others.

But today, around the table, give thanks to God for what exists — both at home and abroad.

Those who love God do not need freedom to follow their faith. But ample facilitation makes our world a better place.

Appreciate, and pray for more. And then, enjoy your turkey.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Saudi Arabia’s Neighbor Defends Religious Freedom of Individuals

This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on September 13.

Bahrain Declaration 2
Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa (center), with Bahrain Declaration attendees. Credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The cause of religious freedom received a significant boost from the Muslim world today. The island Kingdom of Bahrain—connected by bridge to Saudi Arabia—has declared “freedom of choice” to be a “divine gift.”

“We unequivocally reject compelled observance,” states the Bahrain Declaration for Religious Tolerance, released September 13 in Los Angeles with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders in attendance. “Every individual has the freedom to practice their religion, providing they do no harm to others, respect the laws of the land, and accept responsibility, spiritually and materially, for their choices.”

Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa of Bahrain signed as an official envoy of the Gulf nation’s king. Johnnie Moore, a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Rabbi Marvin Heir of the Simon Wiesenthal Center also participated, joining ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Israel.

“The King is acting decisively, courageously, and seriously,” said Moore, noting also Bahrani sponsorship of a religious tolerance center in the capital city of Manama, as well as the sponsorship of a chair in religious coexistence at La Sapienza University in Rome.

“The declaration goes farther than any similar document that I’m aware of.” …

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

Bahrain Declaration
Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, with a Coptic priest. Credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Qatar Continues

Flag Cross Quran


Since last week there has been much written but little resolved. Qatar and the Gulf allies have traded accusations and attempted mediation. But now a line in the sand has been drawn.

A list of demands has been issued.

Egypt, joining Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and others, have given Qatar ten days to close al-Jazeera, reduce Iran ties, shutter a Turkey base, and end support for terrorist groups.

God, with many details behind closed doors, only you can sort out fully the right and the wrong. But amid charges of meddling over several years of frustration, this crisis may be approaching a critical moment.

Keep the peace. Promote consensus. Honor sovereignty. Reveal the truth.

The region needs good journalism, God. Provide for transparency and accountability in an independent media.

The region needs a spirit of unity, God. Help Arab brothers recognize joint challenges and cultivate wise policies.

The region needs respect for diversity, God. Allow conflicting interests and disparate peoples to find welcome.

The region needs less violence, God. End outside support for terrorist groups and reform poisonous ideology.

A line is in the sand, and you count every grain. Let wise heads prevail, and you know every hair.

The stars are in the sky, and you call them by name. Call also the faithful lights of regional politics, and bid them to peace.



Bahrain, Conspiracies, and US-Iranian Cooperation

The pace of popular protest and change in the Middle East has been bewildering. In such cases limited information, new realities, and subtle biases make the resort to conspiracy theory understandable. Tunisia caught everyone by surprise. When the demonstrations erupted in Egypt suddenly a connection was seen, and widely feared. Who was running the show? What forces were at work?

We had the privilege of being eyewitnesses to much of what took place in Egypt, and we can state that if there were greater forces at work, we did not see them. But, this is the nature of conspiracy theory; it is below the surface, unseen.

Conspiracy theories work off of truths, and therefore have merit. But they also tend to look for unified solutions, and I would argue this often betrays them. Life is complex; multiple forces are at work, a grand narrative is near impossible.

Yet while due to our experiences I believe we have a decent handle on the complexity of Egypt, the situation in Bahrain is beyond me. The Egyptian English website of the popular independent newspaper al-Masry al-Youm carries two articles on the situation there. The first is an analysis of the return of ‘stability’ as the protests have largely come to a halt. It seems that security forces have succeeded in driving back the momentum of the demonstrators, and may be undertaking a quiet crackdown against key leaders.

The second is an interview with Dr. Abdullatif al-Mahmood, the spokesman for the National Unity Gathering proposed by the government to lead dialogue between oppositional forces. The situation has certainly moved past dialogue as a solution, but some of his words may betray his status as a neutral, trusted interlocutor.

The problem with the Shias is that most of them have no loyalty to the homeland. Their loyalty to the sect and its plots comes first. How can we trust them when they put up pictures of Khomeini everywhere they go when he was the military leader of Iran, as well as the religious and secular political leader? How can the state trust them?

A quick primer on the issues at stake: Bahrain has been ruled by a Sunni monarchy for the past two hundred years, supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. It rules, however, over a majority Shia population. I am unable to say if its rule has been just, or if it has been successful in developing a sense of national unity. Nor am I able to say if the Shia population is loyal to Iran, or if there has been Iranian interference in Bahraini sovereignty. In his interview Dr. al-Mahmood raises interesting points, which are worthy for consideration.

Yet now we run into the problem of lack of familiarity and information. Can his words be trusted? Within the article he makes this startling accusation:

This is all within the framework of a US plan to create a vast Shia state loyal to Iran in the Gulf and in Iraq.

Al-Masry: How is the US aiming for the region to become governed by Shias loyal to Iran, despite the hostility between the two countries?

Al-Mahmood: This is not true. The truth is that there is no hostility between Iran and the US. There are mutual interests and roles between the two. International relations are governed by interests and not by good or bad relations.

And the conspiracy theory deepens. But it deepens in an unexpected way. Not only is this particular uprising (at least) directed by Iran, it is orchestrated in conjunction with the United States.

Before outright dismissal, where might the truth in such an assertion lie? The United States’ interest lies firmly, if uneasily, with Saudi Arabia as the dominant regional power, if only for the open pipeline of oil supplies. Moreover, media coverage of Bahraini protests, from both al-Jazeera and CNN, has been significantly less than what was given to Egypt. Furthermore, US administration comments took President Mubarak harshly to task, whereas pressure on Bahrain’s monarchy has not moved significantly beyond the call to respect human rights. When Gulf Cooperation Council forces landed in Bahrain to help pacify the situation, the US hardly blinked. This conveys the conventional wisdom in Bahrain. Saudi interests dominate, especially since it has a minority population of Shia, and the first domino must not fall. The US will back Saudi Arabia, especially in curbing an Iranian urge to increase its regional influence.

Where then is the deeper, conspiratorial narrative? If it exists, it could go like this. In this part of the world I have heard just enough US-Iran rumors as well as assumed Western anti-Islamic biases to see a logic:

If united, the Arab world, or, variously constructed, the Islamic world could be a powerful competition to Western hegemony. Following World War I and the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate, the Western powers, namely Britain and France, divided the region into little nation-states. These were reared on the principles of nationalism, in order to give them separate identities and keep them squabbling among themselves. The British, it is said, also nurtured radical Islamic ideologies (Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Wahabbism in Saudi Arabia) to further divide internal populations along religious lines. Extending the thought, the state of Israel was also planted to be a thorn in the side of the Arab world.

The biggest fault line in the Middle East, however, is the Sunni-Shia divide. (I have even heard one voice saying that modern Shiism itself is a British invention.) 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, and the remaining 10% is concentrated in Iran and Iraq, with pockets elsewhere such as Lebanon, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula. Shia Islam believes that Islamic leadership should remain within the family of Muhammad, whereas Sunni Islam developed a political theology that was more egalitarian, or, interpreted differently, justified obedience to whoever usurped leadership in the Muslim community. At one point in history a minority Shia power emerged from Tunisia and ruled much of the Arab Sunni population from Egypt. Today, it is minority Sunni governments which rule over Shia populations in Bahrain, and formerly, in Saddam-era Iraq and previously.

Returning to the conspiracy theory, then, in terms of good relations with the Islamic world and unhampered flow of oil, the US would do well to favor Sunni nations such as Saudi Arabia. Yet, if the US inherits what was (if indeed it was) British policy of divide-and-conquer, under-the-table arrangements to strengthen the minority Shia and promote Iranian interests can make sense too. After all, Iran has abundant petrol resources also, as does Bahrain.

Crazy, you might say? Isn’t Iran ruled by a maniacal despot bent on the destruction of Israel and the Great Satan of America? It certainly seems so. Does anyone believe Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons, despite their statements to the contrary? But, in the Middle East, there has often been a vast difference between public posturing and private sentiment. Could it not be so in the US as well?

Egypt is seen as a bulwark in defense of the Israeli state, being a signatory to the Camp David Accords. With the fall of Mubarak many worry that an anti-Israeli popular sentiment may undue this historic peace. Yet what is often not realized is that all the while Mubarak reaped the benefits of US support upon which preservation of peace hinged, his administration allowed if not promoted the popular sentiment against normalization of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. The same can possibly also be seen in Syria, where President Assad’s popularity is supported by a strong anti-Israel rhetoric. Yet some analysis sees Israel currently worried if the ongoing demonstrations there unseat this ‘enemy’.

Could the official and popular sentiment in the United States against Iran also be manufactured? If so, it would provide the administration cover to maintain good ties with Saudi Arabia while it fans the flames of Shia-Sunni conflict, laying the groundwork in case a formal shift in ties to Iran ever becomes necessary. Such a scenario is easy to imagine: Saudi Arabians have links to al-Qaeda, and the nation has little semblance of democracy or respect for human rights. Iran, meanwhile, is also undergoing popular demonstrations. Should these topple Ahmedinijad, or at the least lead to a coup d’etat, might we find among the Persians a better civilizational friend? Would not the virtues of their people compare favorably to the (now labeled) backward Bedouin terrorists and debauched sheikhs of Saudi Arabia?

I am not arguing for the conspiracy theory by any means. But all conspiracy theories, at some level, make sense. What I am putting forward, especially as it concerns Bahrain, is that I don’t know much of anything. This ignorance, plus a little knowledge, is fertile ground for conspiracy. But just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you, either.

Unfortunately, this is where our world is these days. In time the confusion will dissipate and we will get used to the new realities, becoming comfortable in our illusion of understanding. Yet paradoxically, it is understanding that is vitally necessary. What I have written above is a narrative current in the Middle East. I hope I have carried it forward in a manner respecting its plausibility. Why? Not so that we might lend it credence, but so that we understand and better respect those who hold to it. They are struggling to make sense of the rapid pace of change as much as we are.

Or, they may be manipulators. If so, better understanding will help us to navigate a tricky world of power and self-interest. Those committed to good must be able to see clearly through deceit and ill motivation. Yet they themselves must not yield to the power of an overarching conspiracy theory, neglecting the complexity of each situation. Where demonstrated manipulation exists, it must be rejected. Yet they themselves must know their own heart, that in their commitment to good they are often tempted similarly to smaller manipulations. At least, they are believed smaller. Are others any different?

Among the demonstrators in Bahrain are human rights activists who appear to be committed to democracy and liberal principles of government. Perhaps they are not, or perhaps these are being manipulated by others with more sinister motivations. It is hard to know the right from the wrong. May we have humility in all we profess, conviction to profess what is good, and hope that the profession of good may be mirrored even by those of whom we doubt. Above all, perhaps faith is necessary, that God will sort out our human mess, and redeem every impulse of good, so that all intertwine in a mosaic of his good, just, and eternal principles. May we aid, and not stand in the way.