View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Friday, May 23, 2008

Christians and Churches in the Emirates

This article entitled ‘In Dubai Christians Pray Side by Side but Not Always Together’, written by Annegret Kapp and posted at EarnedMedia (19 May 2008), is an interesting read. Thanks for permission to reproduce it here.

On Fridays, the Holy Trinity church compound in Dubai is abuzz with worshipers from early morning till after nightfall. Some 10 - 11 thousand members of more than 120 different Christian groups and congregations come here on the Emirates' weekly day of rest.

Services in more than a dozen tongues - including English and Arabic, but most of them South Asian such as Urdu, Tagalog, Tamil or Malayam - fill not only the main church from 6 am to 11 pm but the 25 other halls built around a central courtyard adorned with a Canterbury cross.

A vibrant church life may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the Gulf region, which is primarily Muslim. But in a way, the 3-4 million Christians in the region, almost all of whom came in search of work from around the globe, present a microcosm of Christianity and the challenges of church unity.

At the Holy Trinity compound the Christian testimony is one of diversity in worship, from the solemnity of song to happy clapping. As one services ends, worshippers quickly rearrange what was a sober Protestant worship facility into an Orthodox sanctuary with icons and incense. Glory to God is proclaimed throughout the day in a variety of liturgies.

In Dubai, as throughout the United Arab Emirates, Christians are free to practice their faith, but only within the limits of their church compounds or in the privacy of their homes. The foundation stone of Holy Trinity Church was laid in 1969 by Sheikh Rashid bin Said Al Maktoum, then ruler of Dubai, who had graciously granted the land to the Christians living in his sheikdom.

A chaplain was appointed to care for the spiritual welfare of the expatriate Christians living in Dubai, Sharjah and the northern Trucial States, as the state entity which preceded the UAE was called. The following year, Holy Trinity was dedicated as an inter-denominational church building.

The Chaplaincy of Dubai and Sharjah has strong ties to the Anglican tradition. But it also lives up to its inter-denominational vocation and "the Anglican emphasis on hospitality", as the current chaplain Rev. John Weir underlines, by accommodating more than a hundred congregations of other traditions in the Holy Trinity compound - be they Evangelical, Pentecostal or Orthodox.

The challenge of Christian unity
The intimate coexistence in which churches of all stripes and colours find themselves in the Emirates is both a challenge and a chance to develop a deeper sense of belonging to one ecumenical community. "So far, the first thing churches build when they are allotted territory in a new church compound often is a wall separating their plot from the neighbour congregations," said Rev. Rolf Pearson, who used to work in the UAE as Gulf liaison officer for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC).

"It is sad that churches [in compounds jointly granted to several denominations] are often built facing away from one another," acknowledged Weir, the Anglican chaplain, "when in fact, each church could encourage the other." He added that, in the planning meetings for the next compound to be built, he would like to work with the other church leaders involved to find a more ecumenically oriented approach.

Since Christians are such a small minority in the country, the Emirate society sees them as one community. "We need a dialogue among Christians in the Gulf on what it means to be the church here," Catherine Graham, a committed volunteer with both the Anglican congregation and the Mission to Seafarers in Dubai, said at a meeting in April between a delegation from the World Council of Churches (WCC) and Christians from several Gulf countries.

One area in which churches can do good work together is their care for the needs of migrant workers. That this can earn them appreciation and support from the mainstream society has been proven by the case of the Mission to Seafarers.

The charity, which is part of an international Christian organization caring for seafarers of any race or religion in over 300 ports around the world, was able to raise the necessary 3,650,000 dirhams (some 99,000 U.S. dollars or 64,000 euros) to built a boat for outreach to the crews of vessels lying off Dubai's busy port.

During its first year of service, the "Flying Angel" has provided 3,000 seafarers with the services and counsel of a paramedic and a chaplain. An onboard internet café allows the sailors, who often have no other contact with their families for weeks or months, to get in touch with their loved ones. Much funding came from Muslim Emirates who saw the need for such a service and the capacity of the Christian charity with its long experience in the Gulf to deliver it.

The service of the Mission to Seafarers is a perfect example of the biblical mandate for Christians to seek the welfare of the city where God has sent them which the WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia evoked in a sermon at Holy Trinity church during the visit in Dubai: " We must learn to welcome the stranger, every stranger, in a spirit of love and solidarity; to open up our relationships so that we may move from being strangers to being neighbours".

The churches in the Gulf may still have some way to go in order to fully live up to the particular challenges of their situation. But the ecumenical encounters witnessed by the WCC delegation bore evidence of a heartening enthusiasm and the readiness to pull their forces together. The very morning the WCC delegation left Dubai, the local ecumenical group who had prepared the visit met to set up task groups for a better coordination of their activities. A first fruit of their efforts will be a training programme for volunteers in a Christian charity in Oman in autumn.

Annegret Kapp, WCC web editor, is a member of the Evangelical Church in Württemberg, Germany.

Christianity in the Gulf - Facts and Figures
An estimated three to four million Christians live in Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Omar and Saudi Arabia today. While many Arab countries have historic Christian minorities, the Christian presence in the Gulf is a very recent phenomenon, closely linked to these countries enormous need for foreign labour. In fact, prior to some missionaries arriving from North America at the beginning of the 19th century, for an entire millennium, there is practically no historic record of Christians in the region, even though Christian traders from India were probably present there before.

According to tradition, Christianity was brought to Arabia by the apostle Bartholomew. Archaeological finds and records in ancient church annals indicate a widespread Christian presence on the whole Arabian Peninsula in pre-Islamic times, that was eventually supplanted by the dominant new faith.

Since the sudden increase in oil revenues starting in 1973 rapidly turned the oil-exporting sparsely populated dessert nations into the richest countries of the Middle East, millions of workers from abroad have met the demand of their booming economies. The migrants today vastly outnumber some local populations. The most extreme example are the UAE, where just about a fifth of all residents are nationals according to the 2005 census.

Though many immigrants to the Gulf are Muslims themselves, the influx of mainly South Asian workers has significantly increased the religious diversity in the region. Regarding the UAE for instance, the U.S. state department's International Religious Freedom Report 2007 indicates that Christians officially account for nine percent of the total population, while Hindus are estimated to make up 15 percent, Buddhists 5 percent, and 5 percent are said to belong to other religious groups, including Parsi, Bahá'í, and Sikh.

Only Kuwait and Bahrain have small Christian communities with a national identity and all Gulf states are governed by Islamic law. However, laws concerning the practice of religion vary from country to country.

In the UAE, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion in accordance with established customs, and Christians can indeed practice their religion freely within designated church compounds. Land and permission to build such compounds are granted by the local ruler in each emirate.

Because an orthodox interpretation of Islam considers Christians to be "people of the book" (monotheists practicing an Abrahamic religion), facilities for Christian congregations are far greater in number and size than those for other non-Muslim communities, despite the fact that Christians are estimated to represent less than a quarter of the UAE's non-Muslim population. Even so, the continuing influx of Christian migrants, combined with a building boom i.e. in the thriving metropolis Dubai make the provision of sufficient worship spaces a continuous concern.

Some churches enjoy particularly good relations with the indigenous society and local rulers. Roman Catholics, Anglicans, due to the emirates' historic ties to Britain, and Indian Orthodox, who have been a backbone of development in the Gulf, have managed to build trust over the years. So has the Reformed Church in America, whose missionaries had provided medical care and education in the region long before oil was found. Church compounds in the UAE are usually run by these mainline churches, but also accommodate less established Christian groups.


The UAE: No. One for Inter-Faith Relationships

Religious Freedom in the UAE: Commendable Advances, Significant Challenges

Image: People outside the Holy Trinity Church, Dubai.