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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Can ‘Abraham’ Bring Peace to the Middle East?

In forging the first Arab-Israeli peace deal since 1994, President Donald Trump paid homage to a patriarch.

He named the historic normalization the “Abraham Accord.”

The familiar Bible character “is referred to as ‘Abraham’ in the Christian faith, ‘Ibrahim’ in the Muslim faith, and ‘Avraham’ in the Jewish faith,” explained David Friedman, US ambassador to Israel.

“And no person better symbolizes the potential for unity, among all these three great faiths.”

In signing the accord, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) joined Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab nations to make peace with Israel. Telephone lines are already being connected between the Gulf nation and the Jewish state, with preparations underway to exchange embassies.

It may open a new era. Fellow Gulf nations Bahrain and Oman signaled their support, while Saudi Arabia did not oppose it.

“This is a once-in-a-generation diplomatic achievement, but I predict it will be the first, not the last,” said Johnnie Moore, an evangelical leader engaged in behind-the-scenes advocacy. He and bestselling novelist Joel Rosenberg led an evangelical delegation to the UAE in October 2018 (as well as two delegations to Saudi Arabia), and Moore has personally visited three more times.

“The Abraham Accord,” he said, “will prove to be the moment when the grievances of the past no longer overpowered the promises of the future in the Middle East.” A hero of faith to both Christians and Jews, ‘Ibrahim’ is already a central figure in the UAE. The nation…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 17, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Current Events

Vulnerable Gulf Migrants Offered ‘God’s Karuna’ in Bible Society Outreach

Corona and God's Karuna

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on May 29, 2020.

There is no social distancing in a labor camp.

Living in cramped conditions, sometimes 10 to a room, migrant workers in the Gulf are widely considered among the international communities most vulnerable to the new coronavirus.

Seeking a share of the region’s petrodollars as remittances for their poor families and communities back home, migrant laborers far outnumber the Middle Eastern region’s citizen population—as high as 80 percent in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

And hailing primarily from Asian nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and India, they make up the great majority of the region’s more than 200,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Yet from one of their languages emerges a homonym that may birth hope for the languishing workers.

“It is not corona, but karuna, which means mercy in Telugu,” said Prasad, a migrant worker from India, to the Bible Society in the Gulf (BSG).

“God is giving us the opportunity to turn to Him.”

There are 20 million Indian migrants worldwide, and 1.5 million are Telugu speakers working in the Gulf states. Many have lost their jobs or had their salaries reduced due to the economic shutdown.

The Bible society seized on Prasad’s observation to publish a new booklet in Telugu and English, appropriately titled God’s Karuna.

Its content reflects the upside-down nature of the COVID-19 world—and of God’s kingdom. There are frequent references to…

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

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Current Events

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.

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Current Events

Should Christians Praise Partial Religious Freedom?

Partial Religious Freedom
Image: Illustration by Cornelia Li

This article was first published in the June print edition of Christianity Today.

…The tension over praising limited gains is also a factor in Uzbekistan, a Muslim-majority secular nation whose citizens have the right to convert but which the United States has designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) since 2006 over religious freedom violations.

At the US State Department’s inaugural Ministerial for Advancing Religious Freedom in July 2018, Uzbek leaders outlined how they were streamlining registration for religious groups and reviewing a law that restricted religion. Last December, the Central Asian nation was removed from the CPC list—only the second nation to ever come off—and put on a watch list instead. But it ranks No. 17 on Open Doors’ list of countries where it’s hardest to be Christian.

Chris Seiple, president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement, has worked behind the scenes for 20 years to promote religious freedom in the nation he did his dissertation on. He says activists should publish a list of nations showing the most progress, not just the greatest offenders.

Relational diplomacy involves public praise for small, tangible steps to build trust while communicating practical ways to improve in private, he said. There is a secret to engaging authoritarian contexts: create a rumor so that reality follows…

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

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Current Events

Francis of Arabia: Will UAE’s Warm Welcome Help Christians Feel More at Home?

Pope Francis UAE
(Pope Francis arrives at the Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi for Mass. Victor Besa / The National)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on Feb. 6, 2019.

Pope Francis must love creating cognitive dissonance.

This week, he became the first Catholic pontiff to ever visit the Arabian Peninsula, the heart of Islam, where conversion to Christianity is illegal. Francis lauded his hosts in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), saying they “strive to be a model for coexistence.”

The Gulf nation’s crown prince received him with a 21-gun salute. Francis then railed against the “miserable crudeness” of war.

Human rights groups pressed him to address migrant worker issues. Francis rejoiced in “a diversity that the Holy Spirit loves and wants to harmonize ever more, in order to make a symphony.”

The mere existence of a Christian community to visit in the Gulf states may surprise many. In 2015, CT visited the Emirates and reported on its “thriving” church, populated by more than a million Christians—primarily economic migrants from Asian nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Pew Research Center counts them as 13 percent of the population. They worship in over 40 churches, served by over 700 Christian ministries.

And in a region where the Vatican cited a decline of Christians from 20 percent to 4 percent of the Middle East population in the last 100 years, the Emirati government provided a day off and 1,000 buses to bring Catholics to mass.

Attendance reached 135,000, billed as the largest Christian gathering ever held in the Arabian Peninsula.

If the pope does enjoy sparking controversy, he succeeded also among local evangelical leaders…

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

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Christian Partnership with UAE Royals Guarantees Safer Childbirth

Peddle Thorp UAE
UAE Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Saif bin Zayed and his sons at the inauguration of Oasis Hospital’s new maternity centre. Photo: Peddle Thorp

The ruling family in the United Arab Emirates have transformed the country’s maternity facilities, thanks to a multi-million pound investment in Christian medical care.

Oasis Hospital in al-Ain, once just a mud-brick affair built at a date-palmed caravan crossing point before oil wealth modernized the area, will become the top childbirth facility in this former Trucial State.

Four members of the royal family inaugurated the new facility on 15 November this year, with hospital staff old and new.

‘This hospital may be better equipped and integrated than ninety per cent of the hospitals in the United States,’ said Dr Daryl Erickson, a missionary surgeon who served at Oasis from 1976-1985.

The expanded complex now includes 98 rooms over three floors and a state-of-the-art neo-natal intensive care unit. There are twelve delivery rooms – doubled from six – and more specialist staff.

Still present throughout the hospital are Arabic translations of the Gospel of Luke, the physician.

American missionary doctors Pat and Marian Kennedy founded the hospital in 1961, coming at the invitation of the nation’s founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

They scaled sand dunes by Land Rover in a rugged two-day trek to arrive at the desert oasis, tasked with developing modern medical care.

‘Before the hospital, thirty per cent of women died in childbirth and sixty per cent of children died before they were six years old,’ said Erickson, after whom the new surgical wing is named.

‘Immediately after delivery women had their vaginas packed with rock salt. As a result the post-partum period was incredibly painful and any subsequent labour could last up to four days because of severe scarring,’ he explained.

 Honour

Among the Kennedys’ first births was Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, younger brother of Sheikh Khalid, President of the UAE.

Gertrude Dyke, author of the definitive history of Oasis Hospital, delivered babies for twenty-six years. She related to the National that Sheikh Mohamed told her, ‘If you had not come, we would not be here.’

From the beginning, Erickson said, the Kennedys were up front about their desire to share their Christian faith. The tolerance – even honour – afforded to them and the hospital by the royal family continues to this day.

Dr Trey Hulsey: ‘Free care for migrant workers.’ Photo: Oasis Hospital
Hulsey: Free care for poor migrant workers. Photo: Oasis Hospital

‘The founding doctors came as missionaries, which was allowed and accepted by the rulers of that time,’ Oasis President Dr Trey Hulsey told Lapido.

‘Because we have kept to the spirit of treating everyone and turning no one away, we are allowed to keep Bibles out for people to take if they choose.’

Oasis is part of CURE, a network of Christian hospitals in thirty countries that has assisted more than 2.5 million patients, performed more than 180,000 surgeries, and trained over 7,200 medical professionals.

The hospital provides free care worth almost £1.8 million per year, mostly to migrant workers from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

 Dignity

Equal dignity to the poor, said Hulsey, is integral to the CURE slogan: Healing the sick and proclaiming the kingdom of God.

But so too is top-notch professional service to wealthy Emiratis. The hospital has twenty VIP suites fitted out with floor cushions and carpet: Emiratis prefer to sit on the floor.

‘We want people to understand they are cared for, both by us and by God,’ said Hulsey, ‘because God has cared for us first through Christ.’

Oasis hospital employs sixty doctors, about half of whom are Muslim. One-quarter are Christians of traditional missionary spirit.

They deliver three thousand babies a year, but are in need of more staff. The hospital is operating at only two-thirds capacity following the expansion.

Oasis Hospital: better equipped than most US hospitals. Photo: CURE International
Oasis Hospital: Better equipped than most US hospitals. Photo: CURE International

At the grand opening UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sheikh Saif bin Zayed especially honoured the Kennedys’ two daughters, Kathleen and Nancy, thanking them publicly for their parents’ service, the nature of which he said he highlighted to all his international visitors.

Saif also acknowledged their faith, saying whether Muslim, Christian, or Jew, everyone must follow God in their own way.

 Freedom

Christians represent 13 per cent of the UAE’s population, according to the Pew Research Center, drawn entirely from the migrant worker community.

The UAE constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of religion, and guarantees freedom of worship if consistent with public morals.

But according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the UAE is among a number of Muslim-majority countries that make insufficient provision for individual religious freedom.

Open Doors ranks the UAE at number 49 on its list of countries showing degrees of Christian persecution. Though persecution is ‘scarce’, and there is wide freedom for non-Muslims to worship, evangelism is prohibited and the law does not recognize conversion from Islam to Christianity.

Dr Daryl Erickson: UAE’s pioneer missionary surgeon. Photo: Jayson Casper
Erickson: UAE’s pioneer missionary surgeon. Photo: Jayson Casper

Preaching at the hospital had to cease in 1978, and the Christian bookstore was forced to close. In the 1980s, Bibles were banned from patient rooms.

But today they are available again, while the church adjacent to the hospital hosts a Bible Society of the Gulf kiosk.

Oasis Hospital recently delivered its one-hundred-thousandth baby, and certainly enjoys the favour of both citizens and government.

Coordination is now underway with a national charitable foundation to provide medical and surgical aid in Syria and Yemen.

Erickson muses:  ‘I wonder if the UAE is as peaceful as it is today as a result of God’s blessing on the local people—citizens and leaders alike—because of their long-term interest in and tolerance of the Gospel.

‘I don’t know how you prove this, but just look at what the rest of the Middle East is like.’

This article was first published by Lapido Media.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

The Inside Story: Christianity in the Gulf

List of Churches within the Evangelical Church of Abu Dhabi
List of Churches within the Evangelical Church of Abu Dhabi

Christianity Today recently interviewed me about my September article on the churches of the Persian/Arabian Gulf.

There are about 2.3 million Christians in the Arabian Peninsula—more than nearly 100 countries can claim. What does that look like on the ground? Christianity Today‘s Middle East correspondent Jayson Casper recently spoke with assistant editor Morgan Lee on his fascinating story on why Christianity is surging in the heart of Islam. In the interview, Casper explains why Gulf States want churches, how globalization affects religious freedom in the region, and what most surprises him about the region’s Christianity.

As judged by the Facebook shares (over 6,000), this story surprised many of our readers. To what extent did you “stumble” on this story?

The story was suggested by CT’s News Editor Jeremy Weber, but I was eager to take it on. I was aware that there were churches in the region for a long time, but always curious about what local Christianity looked like.

Would the number of churches come as a surprise to those who live in the Gulf?

As far as the Gulf is concerned, the presence of churches is well known. If one is nonreligious, they would not necessarily be spotted, but anyone looking can find them easily. Many churches have an active web presence.

Christian leaders in the United Arab Emirates, as well as a high ranking member of the royal family, told me the government wants to do all it can to facilitate the worship of Christian foreign workers. They value the wholeness the church can provide.

Otherwise they deal with the normal vices found in Western society but out of place in the Gulf, and on top of it suffer from loss of productivity when workers suffer loneliness and depression.

What was hard about doing the reporting for this piece?

Balancing the good news—foreign Christians have been largely welcome to the country—with the reality that this freedom does not extend to Gulf citizens. Overwhelmingly, Christian leaders wanted to accentuate their appreciation to the authorities.

But there was also a tenor among some — off the record — that a glowing portrayal would not be right. The focus of the story is to help correct the wide assumption among many Western Christians that the Islam of the Arabian Peninsula is intolerant to Christianity in general. But getting the right tone of ‘yes-but’ was not easy.

What did you find most surprising in your own reporting?

The physical size of the church buildings, how they are part of the landscape of the community and not hidden away as eyesores. There is money in the Gulf, so everything is big. But while I knew that Christianity existed within a level of tolerance, I had no idea about the level of normalcy these buildings imply. (See pictures here.)

What’s something you wish you could have included in the final draft that didn’t make its way in?

There were several charming stories of interactions normal Christians had with their neighbors. A Sunday School teacher. A military instructor. An IT manager. Each one came for a job, but was living their Christian life—and often speaking of it—in winsome ways.

I also heard about churches organizing service trips into the migrant labor camps, and some of the difficulties experienced by the majority Asian population. Not all of these stories made it into the article, but they served to confirm what leading sources conveyed.

In the article you write, “Thanks also to global capitalism, that freedom is not going away.” To what extent do you think this freedom will expand?

It is difficult to say. Because the nations of the Gulf are so young and their economies are expanding so rapidly, many sources told me that the authorities sort of make it up as they go along.

Concerning the churches, this means there is often no set of regulations that can be followed in a clear cut manner. So much depends upon decisions of higher-ups that come through relationship more than bureaucracy. They prefer to deal with a head of denomination and let them regulate affairs internally. So one measure of expanding freedom can be seen if this freedom simply gets written down into law.

Another measure of freedom, perhaps, exists in comparison between the Gulf States and Europe, both of which have received many migrants over the past decades. Europe has extended citizen rights to many, while the Gulf does not. Will the Gulf ever offer a similar opportunity? If so, can they accept Christians as citizens as opposed to guest workers?

Globalization and multicultural realities often produce a liberalizing effect, even as they can spark backlash. Over time will these realities fundamentally change Gulf attitudes? It is a fascinating possibility to observe.

[Note: Both Bahrain and Kuwait have a tiny number of Christian citizens originally from other Arab countries.]

In the article you write “that Gulf churches exist at all stems from relationships, not economics or law.” Who are those relationships open to? In other words, is it only between Arab men and Western white men? Or are these accessible regardless of ethnic background or gender?

In the article, that sentence meant the origin and continuance of the churches is due to the very specific relationship between Christian leaders and the ruling authorities. In terms of relations between guest workers and Gulf citizens, I think the general culture does not facilitate mixing.

In many settings the migrant workers are the majority, and many citizens do not work except in management at the level of “boss.” This would include the vast sector of domestic labor, which I did not sufficiently encounter. Non-Western migrants also complained about a level of hierarchy, with increasing discrimination felt by the darker of skin and the lower of economic level.

In your observation, how has the Western Protestant church been affected by Gulf State culture?

Most leaders celebrated a far greater level of diversity than would be experienced by most Christians in America. They would say that our congregation is a ‘taste of heaven’ as they listed the number of nationalities and languages worshiping together. This is certainly part of Gulf culture stemming from economic realities—not necessarily the Arab Muslim culture they maintain among themselves, though in some settings it is also seen here.

Morgan Lee is assistant editor of Christianity Today.

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Current Events

Churches of the United Arab Emirates

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.

The excerpt provided in my earlier post ended with a hook:

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.

St. Andrew's Anglican Church, Abu Dhabi
St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Abu Dhabi

St. Anthony's Coptic Orthodox Church, Abu Dhabi
St. Anthony’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Abu Dhabi

The Evangelical Church of Abu Dhabi
The Evangelical Church of Abu Dhabi

Service at the Evangelical Church of Abu Dhabi
Service at the Evangelical Church of Abu Dhabi

List of Churches within the Evangelical Church of Abu Dhabi
List of Churches within the Evangelical Church of Abu Dhabi

Bibles for Sale at the Evangelical Church of Abu Dhabi
Bibles for Sale at the Evangelical Church of Abu Dhabi

Anglican Christ Church, Dubai
Anglican Christ Church, Dubai

Dubai Evangelical Church Centre
Dubai Evangelical Church Centre

Worship Hall inside Dubai Evangelical Church Centre
Worship Hall inside Dubai Evangelical Church Centre

Indian Mar Thoma Church, Dubai
Indian Mar Thoma Church, Dubai

Mar Ignatius Syrian Orthodox Church, Dubai
Mar Ignatius Syrian Orthodox Church, Dubai

The Dubai churches pictured above are in compound just for foreign worship. But it is right down the street from the famed Ibn Battuta mall. In the distance you can see the Evangelical Church, in the foreground is a Sikh Temple.
The Dubai churches pictured above are in compound just for foreign worship. But it is right down the street from the famed Ibn Battuta mall. In the distance you can see the Evangelical Church, in the foreground is a Sikh Temple.

Not all churches are in buildings. In the Gloria Hotel in Dubai is the Fellowship of the Emirates, featured in the article as an example of Christian worship that is welcome but exists in legal limbo.
Not all churches are in buildings. Inside the Gloria Hotel in Dubai is the Fellowship of the Emirates, featured in the article as an example of Christian gathering that is welcome but exists in legal limbo.

Jim Burgess, pastor of the Fellowship of the Emirates, inside the not-yet-set-up church hall.
Jim Burgess, pastor of the Fellowship of the Emirates, inside the not-yet-set-up church hall.

The article describes how the presence of all these churches is connected to the medical missions of 100 years earlier. This is Oasis Hospital in al-Ain, the tribal home of the royal family. The modern building to the right is the new hospital the royal family paid for to expand Oasis' service.
The article describes how the presence of all these churches is connected to the medical missions of 100 years earlier. This is Oasis Hospital in al-Ain, the tribal home of the royal family. The modern building to the right is the new hospital the royal family paid for to expand Oasis’ service.

Upon entering the hospital, the visitor first sees the words of Jesus from John 4:13, in English and Arabic.
Upon entering the hospital, the visitor first sees the words of Jesus from John 4:13, in English and Arabic.

Also prominently available and in every patient room is a Gospel of Luke and a copy of the Jesus Film.
Also prominently available and in every patient room is a Gospel of Luke and a copy of the Jesus Film.

The Evangelical Church of al-Ain, hosted on hospital grounds.
The Evangelical Church of al-Ain, hosted on hospital grounds.

Service at the Evangelical Church of al-Ain
Service at the Evangelical Church of al-Ain

List of Churches within the Evangelical Church of al-Ain
List of Churches within the Evangelical Church of al-Ain

The Bible Society of the Gulf, in the Evangelical Church of al-Ain. The Bible Society legally distributes over 40,000 Bibles per year throughout the Gulf, whether in small depots like this or in centers within larger Protestant and Catholic churches.
The Bible Society of the Gulf, in the Evangelical Church of al-Ain. The Bible Society legally distributes over 40,000 Bibles per year throughout the Gulf, whether in small depots like this or in centers within larger Protestant and Catholic churches.

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.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Why Christianity is Surging in the Heart of Islam

Public baptism service in the Gulf, in front of Dubai's Burj al-Arab. Photo courtesy of Fellowship of the Emirates.
Public baptism service in the Gulf, in front of Dubai’s Burj al-Arab. Photo courtesy of Fellowship of the Emirates.

My article for Christianity Today was published September 11, 2015. Here is an excerpt:

Espada, an architect, is one of the millions of foreign workers transforming the former desert oasis into a global center for business and travel. The UAE’s Dubai is the fifth-fastest-growing city in the world; its population is now more than 80 percent migrant.

The great majority of migrant workers in the region come from India and Southeast Asia, sometimes suffering exploitation in labor camps to send a collective $100 billion back home. As an American, Espada is unusual.

But as a Christian, he is not. 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.

Surprising to many observers is how many of these churches there are.

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today. Next post I’ll share some photos of church buildings.

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Teaching Migrant Workers their Rights: Good News from the Gulf

Hack 1a
Mona Demaidi (R)

This article was originally published at Lapido Media.

Migrant workers long abandoned to slave-like conditions in the Arabian Gulf have found an unlikely weapon in their fight against exploitation: hackers.

Young Arab computer geeks are creatively helping vulnerable foreign labourers break into a culture that either ignores or abuses them.

Last April New York University Abu Dhabi hosted the fourth annual Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World at their campus in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

More than 150 top university students from seventeen countries competed to design practical apps to innovate solutions for social problems, during a three-day marathon.

An app called Guide Me won the Audience Choice Award, aiming to inform migrants of their rights in law.  It also monitors abuse.

26-year-old Mona Demaidi, a mentor from Palestine and a lead programmer for the app is a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester in the UK. ‘Our region needs transparency,’ she told Lapido Media. ‘This project will give data and facts, as we don’t have access to information. And here, it will change lives.’

With a team of eight students she helped create a system to log calls to a central database from a free helpline to record and track complaints about abuse.

All audio, it will operate in twelve different languages, providing labour law and feedback options for anonymous or on-the-record complaints.

Information is also available on a website, to be accessed from a kiosk at every labour camp.

Sana Odeh - Hackathon
Sana Odeh (R)

‘We’re not coming from the West dictating what the problem is and what the solution should be,’ said Sana Odeh, the NYU professor and organizing force. ‘These must come from the students. The power of a hackathon is to unleash students’ skills and connect them to the world.’

And though the younger generation is different, there is a significant gap to overcome.

‘We always want to hide our problems, we don’t want to talk about them,’ Demaidi said. ‘But the information collected will be good for the workers, good for the companies, and good for the government.’

According to the Pew Research Center, the Arabian Gulf is home to fifteen million migrant workers, the majority from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

In the UAE they make up 84 per cent of the population, the highest rate in the world. Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain follow next on the list.

Thompson
Revd Andrew Thompson

One link between these workers, the Hackathon, and the government is Anglican priest Revd Andrew Thompson of St Andrew’s Church, Abu Dhabi.

‘The nation has good laws,’ the British vicar who has served in the region for the past 27 years, told Lapido. ‘We just want to assist the government in letting the workers know what they are.’

UAE labour law demands payment of a salary every month. Employers must provide health care, vacation, and sick leave, within a working week of 48 hours. Passports may not be confiscated.

Unfortunately, each of these provisions is regularly violated.

Given the vast expanse of labour camps, oversight is difficult, Thompson told the UAE-based National. And companies that encounter problems simply shut up shop and open elsewhere.

But ignorance and illiteracy keep many migrants from knowing their rights in the first place.

St Andrew’s Church compound is part of the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf.  Thompson hosts and oversees an international community of more than ten thousand weekly worshippers, in 45 congregations with 17 language groups.

Thanks to those like Thompson and his teams of volunteers, they now have the law translated into twelve different languages.

Instead of lambasting local negligence, as much of the media do – even Migrants’ Rights complain this is counter-productive – Thompson believes in supplementing it.

‘Once you shame an Arab you lose him for life,’ said Thompson. ‘We want to honour all that is right and good, and fill in the gaps where the government isn’t working.’

As a priest, Thompson recognizes the religious roots of identifying corruption in society, but he has chosen a different way. Both are necessary, but he is making a practical difference.

‘Some say there should be a prophetic voice,’ he said. ‘We want to be prophetic hands.’

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Excerpts

The Case against Qatar

Qatar

A recent Foreign Policy investigative report details Qatari foreign policy. It describes a strategy of intervention-by-proxy, which keeps its hands clean officially while funneling money to groups it deems ideologically similar, that is, those they can trust.

Primarily, this has been the Muslim Brotherhood and various activist Salafi factions.

The article is long but worthy, and one interesting section describes how Qatar has helped the US disengage from the region. This was evident in Libya, when Qatar not only provided crucial Arab support for the operation, but also took the lead in sponsoring militia groups against Gaddafi.

But now that the US is reengaging the region, this time against the Islamic State (ISIS), officials are examining anew the sponsorship by Qatari individuals and charities which have gone to the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front. Following three years or more of looking the other way, the dispute has become public:

In Syria, meanwhile, it wasn’t until the Islamic State gained prominence that Washington sat up and took notice. In March, David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, took the unprecedented step of calling out the Qataris in public for a “permissive terrorist financing environment.” Such stark criticism, counterterrorism experts say, is usually left for closed-door conversations. A public airing likely indicated Doha wasn’t responsive to Washington’s private requests.

But if initial requests were private, that means the US – for a long while, at least – tolerated and possibly approved of the general strokes of Qatari foreign policy. Two key aspects of Qatar’s leverage over the United States include its hosting of the US Central Command air base, as well as the usefulness of its network to liaison with otherwise disreputable characters. Discussions with the Taliban in particular have often flowed through Qatar. Without them, back-door channels would not be possible; hostages released might still be held.

Has the US, therefore, been a partner in the wanton destruction of Syria? President Obama has forcefully spoken against Assad, but has never decisively moved against him. The article deems the chaos there less to be a result of coordinated conspiracy, than uncoordinated incompetence:

In other words, there was no one winner. Qatar and other international powers haphazardly backed dozens of different brigades and let them fight it out for who could secure a greater share of the funding. They had few incentives to cooperate on operations, let alone strategy. Nor did their various backers have any incentive to push them together, since this might erode their own influence over the rebels.

Says one analyst:

“One of the things about Qatar’s foreign policy is the extent to which it has been a complete and total failure, almost an uninterrupted series of disasters,” says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. “Except it’s all by proxy, so nothing bad ever happens to Qatar.”

Except its reputation in much of the Arab world. Egyptians in particular have been furious at Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have signaled displeasure in manners unusual among Gulf monarchies.

Long ago Qatar made a bet on the Islamist factions becoming the prominent power players in the region. For a while they seemed vindicated; now they appear in retreat. Qatar has been publicly acquiescing to the criticism, sending away top Brotherhood figures it has long hosted, for example, but it is unclear if its long term strategies have changed.

Were Qatar and its allies-by-proxy simply outmaneuvered? How much of the Arab Spring was manipulated by the regional and international power struggles? What role did America have is a key question. Most Arabs view Washington as the chief puppet master, allowing its public allies – the Saudis, Turks, UAE, Qatar, and Israel, of course – to mess around with local sovereignty.

Or, did the US just pull back, and allow others to run the show? Either way, the result is a disaster, however many parties share in the blame.

One other controversial point converges with this article. Many Egyptians see the Muslim Brotherhood as one aspect of an Islamist agenda that includes and coordinates with groups like ISIS, on the far end of the spectrum. The point is not necessarily that the MB keeps its hands clean while sending out clandestine orders to others to ferment chaos – though this is certainly believed locally.

But if the Brotherhood is one part, and a key part, of Qatar’s proxy network, a linkage does seem to exist. This article does not make the accusation, and I do not wish to lend it weight in the mentioning. But it bears consideration.

Of course, Brotherhood sympathizers simply turn the equation on its head. They see Qatar as the good guy, standing with the people and the forces of democracy, against fearful Gulf monarchies, their own proxies, and the US.

God bless this part of the world. Maybe one day the oil will run out and they can all be left alone again.

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Personal

Syrian Rebel Bribes Way Out of Prison, Runs Revolutionary Cairo Tent

Amin Kazkaz

A few days ago I posted an update about Syria, adding a few reflections. A few days after that, I met a Syrian.

Amin Kazkaz is a lawyer from the city of Hama, one of the flashpoints of the uprising. He had been working in the United Arab Emirates but returned to participate in Syria’s revolution.

Participation for Kazkaz meant armed revolt. On the eve of Ramadan 2011, one year ago, he was arrested in his city – with weapons. This information was volunteered and there was no hesitation in his voice.

Hama, reminded Kazkaz, was not the lead city in the revolution. Residents remembered the crackdown by Syrian authorities in 1982 during an insurrection led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet when other cities such as Deraa began meeting resistance for their peaceful protest the people of Hama felt compelled to join in as well.

Kazkaz spent twenty-five days in jail before his wealthy grandfather was able to intercede. A landowner, he bribed prison officials with 1.5 million Syrian pounds ($23,000 US) to free his grandson and erase his name from the national database. The warden opened Kazkaz’s cell and told him he had six hours to leave the country or risk re-arrest.

Immediately, with only the clothes on his back and items confiscated by the prison, he hired a taxi to take him to Damascus. From there he hired another taxi to cross the border into Amman, Jordan. Once settled, he arranged for his family to send him his private belongings.

In Jordan Kazkaz sought medical treatment for injuries suffered during combat and imprisonment, but then returned to the United Arab Emirates where he maintained residency. By this time, however, the UAE was rejecting Syrians within its borders and his residency was denied.

On a formal level the UAE and several nations of the Gulf condemned the Syrian regime for its crackdown and broke off all relations. This included agreements allowing freedom of movement between its citizens. On an informal level, however, Kazkaz stated that a major pro-regime Syrian businessman was active in the UAE and worked behind the scenes to keep Syrian dissidents out as well.

Kazkaz was forced to return to Jordan, but finding it too expensive he transferred to Egypt. This was five months ago; Egypt continues its policy of easy entry for Arab nationals. No visa is required but his passport is stamped with three month validity.

Egyptian policemen, he notes, are very sympathetic to the Syrian cause. At times he, like other Syrians, is questioned now that his residency has expired. Police look at the passport, note the nationality, hear the story, wish him well, and send him on his way.

For the last two months in Egypt Kazkaz has assumed responsibility to oversee the ‘Syrian tent’. The tent was erected at the Qasr al-Nile entrance to Tahrir Square during the ongoing revolutionary activity following the resignation of Mubarak. It serves as a point of awareness and support for cross-pollination in the Arab Spring. Syrians in Egypt visit regularly.

So do Egyptians; though I wondered for what purpose. A day or two earlier Syrian television announced the death of two Egyptians in a suburb of Damascus, where fighting had been intense. What were they doing there?

That evening the family of the Blind Sheikh was hosting a press conference at their open sit-in outside the US Embassy. My article on this event is here. In previous visits to his family I witnessed their fierce prayers against the Assad regime of Syria. Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya – the Blind Sheikh’s organization – has forsworn violence as a tool of Egyptian political change. Yet I wondered if they would encourage, or at least be aware of, Egyptians to go to Syria to join the jihad.

‘Of course there are’, said Mohamed Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh’s son. ‘But al-Gama’a has nothing to do with them, though it supports the Syrian cause morally. They are individual Muslims – Islamists – only.’

As the sit-in location is only five minutes from the Syrian tent I paid them a short visit first, meeting Kazkaz and hearing his story above. Upon mentioning the names of the two Egyptians, which he didn’t know, his response was quick.

‘I have met 200-300 Egyptians at this tent who have inquired how to join our fight in Syria,’ he said. ‘But we do not allow any foreign fighters in our revolution.’

Kazkaz explained the Syrian revolution was a Syrian cause, but furthermore, involving foreigners would be counterproductive. Not only would it damage their legitimacy but also foreigners do not know the lay of the land. They would be killed in their ignorance and perhaps take Syrians with them.

The only foreigners he has seen are five Iranian snipers he helped capture in Hama.

Yet Kazkaz’s final words, though not at all contradictory, suggest there may be ways for foreign fighters to infiltrate. There are for foreign media.

He offered me personal escort across the border to take a first-hand look at the fighting and to meet the leaders of the Free Syrian Army. All I would have to do is get a visa to Turkey, and he would coordinate everything. He plans to return to Syria within a few weeks.

The time with Kazkaz was insufficient to ask him the following questions:

  • How did you obtain your weapon? How long was peaceful protest underway before you started to use it?
  • To what degree is sectarianism a part of the Syrian revolution? What do you think should become of the Alawite community?
  • To what degree are Christians participating actively on either side?
  • What role do you wish for Islam in a free Syria if you are successful?
  • Are foreign powers equipping you with weapons and support?
  • Do you desire intervention from NATO or an Arab transnational force?
  • What did you do with the Iranians you captured?

As I have mentioned before, it is too difficult to understand Syria through the media alone. Kazkaz’s experience is partisan and that of only one man, but it is first-hand. As such, it is the first I have received.

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