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The Changing Faiths of the Persian Gulf

Monday, June 21, 2010 7:54 PM Comments (3)

Pope Benedict XVI accepts the credentials of Hissa Abdulla Ahmed al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates' first ambassador to the Vatican, May 20 at the Vatican. The Vatican and the United Arab Emirates, a federal union made up of seven states, established full diplomatic relations in 2007. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Catholic Press Photo)

Although Christian emigration from the Holy Land continues to be a serious concern, it’s perhaps less well known that other parts of the Middle East - namely the Arabian peninsular - have seen a phenomenal rate of Christian immigration, mostly from the Asian sub-continent.

It’s the subject of an interesting essay by my colleague Giuseppe Caffulli, the editor-in-chief of Terrasanta.net, and highlighted today by the veteran Vaticanista Sandro Magister.

Caffulli writes: “The land which gave birth to Islam and the Prophet is top on the chart of areas in the world where Christianity is increasing the most” and he goes on to list some remarkable population statistics:

• The United Arab Emirates: out of a population of 6 million, 5 million are foreign workers, of whom 1,500,000 are Christians, and of those 580,000 are Catholics.
• Bahrain: out of about 1 million inhabitants, 65,000 are Catholics
• Oman: out of over 3,200,000 inhabitants, 120,000 are Catholics.
• Qatar: out of 1,200,000 inhabitants, 110,000 are Catholics.
• Saudi Arabia: out of a population of 27.5 million, 8 million are immigrants, a large number of whom are Christians (the Church estimates there are 1.2 million Filipino faithful alone, making them the country’s third largest immigrant group).

But Catholics in each of these countries face varying hardships, from constraints on religious freedom to appalling labour conditions and exploitation, particularly among domestic and construction workers.

On the former, Caffulli writes: “Religious freedom and tolerance of worship cannot be compared with the West: everything is concentrated within the parish areas, without the possibility to expose symbols outside and without the possibility to carry out any public activity.”

The situation in Saudi Arabia, where churches aren’t allowed, is particularly serious, as is well known. “Pastoral assistance is practically impossible to get,” Caffulli explains. “The millions of faithful that live on the other side of the ‘iron curtain’ are sometimes reached, in some incredible manner, by a priest in disguise who assures the consecration of the Eucharistic bread which will then be distributed by the lay people of the various communities.”

Although some progress has been made in religious freedom in some countries in the Persian Gulf, namely in Bahrain and Qatar and, to a lesser extent, the UAE and Oman, living conditions for Christians there remain far from satisfactory.

On a trip to the UAE two years ago, I witnessed some of these hardships for myself: tens of thousands of parishioners attending Mass in overcrowded churches, overworked priests restricted in their ministry, and dire working conditions for many Catholic laborers working on construction sites in Dubai. I also interviewed for the Register one of just a handful of priests ministering covertly in Saudi Arabia, who candidly described the dangers and challenges he faces daily, not least from the matawas (religious police).

Yet as Christians continue to emigrate to the Persian Gulf and start outnumbering the local populations, will the religious freedom that Muslims enjoy in the West be seriously reciprocated in the region?

Evidence suggests that it might as countries in the Gulf increasingly show a willingness to improve relations with the Church (just last month, the UAE sent its first ambassador to the Holy See).

But there’s still a long way to go. And the matawas are still on patrol in Saudi Arabia.

Filed under arabian peninsula, emigration, holy land, holy see, middle east, persian gulf, religious freedom

About Edward Pentin

Edward Pentin
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Edward Pentin began reporting on the Pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Follow on Twitter @edwardpentin