Back in May I traveled to the Gulf – Persian or Arabian as per your geopolitical preference – to research the growth of Christianity among the extensive migrant population. What I learned became an article for Christianity Today: Why Christianity is Surging in the Heart of Islam.
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.
Surprising to many observers is how many of these churches there are.
Hopefully you clicked to read on. If not, the answer is that the Gulf region hosts more than 40 physical church buildings in 17 cities. Many of these host multiple congregations. All operate publicly with permission of national governments.
Alongside them are house churches, most of which operate in a legal limbo outside of formal permission but generally with the awareness of authorities who watch everything closely.
My article makes clear that religious freedom in these nations is not complete, certainly not along Western conceptions. But the existence of these buildings is remarkable in its own right. They are a concession to foreign workers, certainly. One leading church leader told me that Islam, at best, only ‘tolerates’ non-Muslims.
But let us not dismiss tolerance. Many of these buildings are not tucked away into foreign-only enclaves, eyesores to be hidden from embarrassed Muslims. No, they are downtown, in residential neighborhoods, near commercial centers … and massive. At least they are in the United Arab Emirates.
Please enjoy the pictures.
If the images are striking, far from what you may have imagined about the Muslim lands of the Arabian Peninsula, click here to read the article again with new eyes.
One Christian leader compared the church in the Gulf to a potted plant that is being removed and planted in the ground.
Their consensus voice conveys two wishes: For the Christian, pray – and come – that it might flourish. For all, be thankful for regional leadership that is far more tolerant than you might think.
Imagine David Cameron in Norfolk, about to speak on ‘British values’. He then invites forward a Muslim Brotherhood leader, and asks him to explain Islam.
And in the Zippo’s Circus-like atmosphere, the audience leaves pleased.
Transfer the scene to the Sultanate of Oman, and witness an American Christian pastor make clear the gospel in the austere heartland of Ibadi Islam.
Now picture a tolerance that predates Britain’s embrace of multiculturalism—on the border of Saudi Arabia.
The analogy is not perfect. Sultan Qaboos bin Said is an absolute monarch, ruling since 1970. Proselytisation is forbidden in any direction.
But the Shiva Temple in the capital of Muscat has served the Hindu community for over 200 years. Since the early 1900s the government has given land to build churches.
Saudi Arabia’s chief cleric has repeatedly called for all non-Muslim houses of worship in the Arabian Peninsula to be destroyed in accordance with sharia law.
Clearly, Oman does not share Wahhabi convictions. There appears a similarity in strict practice, but not in the approach to others. The Ibadi branch of Islam is far older than the eighteenth-century Saudi creed, dating to its formative scholar from the old capital in Nizwa in AD 711.
And to this region where Islam originally took hold, the Ministry of Religious Affairs invited Revd Douglas Leonard to speak.
Leonard is the director of al-Amana Centre in Muscat, an outgrowth of the Reformed Church in America’s (RCA) mission dating back to 1893. Today its focus is on interfaith dialogue.
Leonard expected a quiet discussion with twenty imams. He found a huge tent full with 500 people, over a thousand outside, and twenty imams seated in the front row. Three television stations were present, broadcasting his lecture to the whole nation.
It was a lecture, not a Billy Graham crusade. But it focused on countering misconceptions about Christianity, dealing with differences and not content to settle for ‘common ground’.
A kindly reception was guaranteed by his official introduction as part of the heritage of ‘Dr Thoms’, an RCA missionary-surgeon remembered fondly. Omani’s eyes soften, Leonard said, and tell stories of how he healed their grandparents, or delivered then when they were born.
Leonard also teaches a course each semester at the College for Sharia Sciences. Its thousand strong student body goes on to become imams, jurists, lawyers, and bureaucrats.
‘The government wants every Omani to gain appreciation of other religions,’ he said.
Ibadism sees tolerance amid conviction as the essence of original Islam.
Twenty years after the death of Muhammad the nascent caliphate was in civil war. Unlike the eventual Shia, they rejected Caliph Ali when he agreed to negotiate with Muslim rebels deemed insufficiently pious. And unlike the eventual Sunni, they did not reconcile with the rebels after their victory established a hereditary throne.
History records one of the leading rejectionist parties as the Kharijites, a violent and puritanical sect who declared anyone in disagreement a non-Muslim, much like ISIS today. But though they emerged from the same political position, Ibadis separated completely from the Kharijites and became quietists. They insist on piety but do not judge, as only God can know one’s heart.
Ibadis are less than one per cent of Muslims worldwide. But in Oman they are a majority, with a substantial Sunni minority. Shia are roughly five per cent, though the government does not keep official statistics. In law and practice, all mosques are open to all faith interpretations.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Oman’s population is 3.2 million, 30 per cent of which are foreign workers. An estimated 85 per cent are from India, mostly from the southeastern state of Kerala where Hindus and Christians together have shaped the culture.
Centuries of trade across the Indian Ocean have nurtured an open spirit. A few Hindus and Christians have become citizens.
But nearly all Omanis are Muslim, and the demographic explosion of foreigners since the oil boom has put pressure on traditional society. Sultan Qaboos has developed interior cities such as Nizwa, but despite employing extensive foreign labor the city has not been allotted a church.
Doing so would be sensitive, Leonard said, just as building a mosque can be sensitive in parts of the West. But in his experience the people are kind and the government wants to do all it can to facilitate the ability of foreign Christians to worship.
And one reason Leonard is trusted is because he does all he can to facilitate the ability of Omani and Christian alike to appreciate the other.
Over the past five years al-Amana has hosted 42 American university students in a semester-abroad program. Besides taking introductory classes on Arabic and Islam, they have been matched with 40 Omanis in ‘scriptural reasoning’.
Much interfaith dialogue does not go into the details of religious difference, afraid to cause offense or devolve into argument. Scriptural reasoning seeks to honor each faith at its core, studying the texts as holy in the eyes of the other, and not just stop at common ground.
Each year for the past four the Omani government has sent ten religious sector employees to Cambridge University for training, where Leonard is an instructor. One became emotional reading the Sermon on the Mount, saying he would now tell other Muslims that what they say about Christians is wrong.
An experience mirroring that of Kory McMahan, a junior at Northwestern College in Iowa and al-Amana’s most recent graduate.
‘At my school there is no Muslim voice, but it deserves to be heard,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘I can’t speak for Muslims but I can share what I have seen and learned.’
Leonard hopes the pattern of religious tolerance in Oman can be replicated throughout the Middle East, as well as combat anti-Muslim sentiment in the West.
‘Ours is a 120 year example of Muslims and Christians working together,’ he said. ‘Imagine what would happen if instead of being suspicious, we came together for the common good.’
Whether in Norfolk or Nizwa, British and Omani values may not be that far apart.