Last month there was another positive sign from the United Arab Emirates as a leader of one of the seven emirates granted the land and will pay for the construction of a new evangelical Christian church in Fujairah City. Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, the emir of Fujairah, has given an evangelical Christian church a home.
As is the case with many other positive developments on religious freedom, this has been a winding road. The church had been renting space for several years when they received an ominous question from their landlord. The landlord wanted to know whether the government officially registered the congregation.
Religious registration is often a sticking point in majority-Muslim countries, an artifact of the Ottoman Empire’s particular vision for religious pluralism. Under the Ottoman millet system, religious communities were free to a certain degree to manage their own affairs—marriage, inheritance, divorce, child custody, and so on—in accordance with their own beliefs and practices. Some form of this system is still in place in most parts of the Muslim world.
As the millet system has been brought into the modern era, new questions have been raised. One of the key questions for evangelical communities around the Middle East is whether they will be formally “recognized” by the government as a semi-autonomous religious community. In most countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the Catholic and Orthodox churches are recognized, but Protestant Christian communities often operate in a legal grey area: the government is aware the community is there, but the community has not been legally and formally recognized as a millet by the government.
Existing in this grey area means that the religious community is always subject to being shut down or harassed if there is a change in government policy or personnel. If the situation changes, property can be seized, parishioners can be arrested, and international staff and volunteers can be deported.
Over the years, the pastor at the church in the UAE had been careful to know that local and emirate officials knew him and were aware of his congregation. So when the church’s landlord asked if the church was officially registered with the government, this raised a number of practical and political questions about whether the church’s informal standing with the government had changed.
As is the case in most parts of the world, there is no formal mechanism for registering a new church, or even more complex, a new Christian denomination. Absent a legal mechanism, the question becomes one only the sovereign can resolve and therefore becomes imbued with all of the trappings political questions tend to have. For international churches made up of what are inherently non-citizens, this can present a real quandary. Community goodwill is important but only goes so far since non-citizens may have limited rights and no ability to hold politicians accountable.
It’s worth noting that at the same time that the church in Fujairah received notice that its lack of registration might be a problem, several churches in Dubai had received a similar notice and had lost the right to meet in the facilities they had been renting. It’s not clear that this is anything beyond coincidence, but it did provide an opportunity for these evangelical churches to work together and make the same case in several emirates.
And so these churches in Dubai and Fujairah turned to the tools they had at their disposal: building on the goodwill they had generated over the years and working quietly with international partners to find a path forward.
As it turned out, these churches in the UAE were seeking a resolution to their registration issues at the right time, just as the United Arab Emirates had announced a new initiative: the Year of Tolerance.
While significant religious liberty issues remain in Dubai—Muslims still do not have the right to change their religion, and blasphemy is criminalized—the UAE has been working over the last several years to develop a vision for pluralism and social harmony rooted in and compatible with Islamic principles. And this new development in Fujairah shows that there is significant positive movement underway in the UAE.
The Year of Tolerance, although the latest initiative by the Emirati government toward social harmony and religious freedom for minority faiths, is connected to a broader pattern of work the government has been pursuing in the region. In 2016, the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, which is funded by the UAE, convened the Marrakesh Declaration consultation in Morocco. The conference culminated in not just a statement but also a larger project and series of consultations aimed at a new conversation about pluralism in majority-Muslim societies.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis made a historic visit to the UAE, his first trip of any pope to the country. The visit included several important statements in support of religious freedom and pluralism, particularly in majority-Muslim societies.
In sum, human rights activists have been closely watching the UAE, particularly because a key indicator of Emirati leadership’s commitment to human rights is demonstrated not in what they say other countries should do but how they treat the religious minorities in their own lands. That work is harder and will require reformists to wage difficult internal political battles, thereby demonstrating their commitment to these higher ideals which are about constraining the power of the government for the common good.
Undoubtedly, it is always difficult to draw a trend line in the midst of changes that could be either genuine reform or a sophisticated public relations operation. But what has just happened in Fujairah—and what will hopefully be happening in Dubai soon—is a sign that what we are seeing from the UAE on the international stage isn’t just talk.
Only time will tell, but in the meantime, the emir of Fujairah deserves credit for granting this evangelical Christian church both official registration and a permanent house of worship.
Travis Wussow is vice president for public policy and general counsel at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC). Travis led the ERLC’s first international office located in the Middle East prior to joining the Washington, DC, office. He received a BBA in Finance from The University of Texas at Austin and a JD from The University of Texas School of Law.
Photo Credit: Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi receiving a delegation of senior pastors from the Evangelical Church in the UAE in February 2019. Via emirates247.com.