On the eve of September 11, many prominent American Christians met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), who is trying to rebrand his kingdom as a more religiously tolerant country. MBS is not the first Persian Gulf leader to receive Christians as a tactic to bolster his country’s image internationally. Earlier this year, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates officially hosted Pope Francis, where the latter presided over the first papal Mass in the Gulf, which more than 135,000 people attended (including about 4,000 Muslims).
Rhetoric has changed significantly in the Gulf States. But have conditions changed on the ground? What is it like to live as a religious minority in a region still dominated by monarchs and void of democracy?
When considering Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen many of these countries deserve commendation for participating in interfaith dialogues. However, they have made no significant progress in improving religious liberty within their borders.
In fact, all of them are top violators of religious liberty according to the most well-known indexes of international religious liberty.
Despite the fact that foreigners comprise over 30 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population, the kingdom does not report on their religious composition. The kingdom earned a “Tier 1” ranking, the highest level of concern, from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). This is hardly surprising given the country traditionally denies non-Muslims the right of public worship. The kingdom also harshly oppresses its Shia Muslim minority, who compose 10-15 percent of the population, and barbarically beheaded 39 Shias in a mass execution this past April.
Saudi Arabia ranks in the “High” category in Pew Research Center’s Social Hostilities Index and “Very High” in Pew’s Government Restrictions Index.
Open Doors lists the kingdom as the fifteenth-most oppressive environment for Christians in the world.
Yemen’s current civil war between the internationally recognized government, heavily backed by Saudi Arabia (with support from a number of allies, such as the United States), and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has witnessed the exodus of an ancient Jewish community whose presence in Yemen may now only remain as history.
Although the conflict seems to make ranking Yemen impossible in USCRIF’s index, Open Doorsranked it as the eighth-most oppressive country for Christians in the world.
The most scarring incident of Christian persecution was a terrorist attack on a retirement home managed by the Missionaries of Charity (the order founded by St. Theresa of Calcutta), which saw the massacre of 16 people in 2016.
This past year witnessed the highly concerning arrest of 22 Baha’is and the charge levied against them by a Houthi court of apostasy. Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi has publically called Baha’is infidels and satanic.
The conflict in Yemen is one of the most concerning humanitarian situations in the world, with the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) estimating that over 67,600 people have died from causes relating to the conflict as of February of this year.
Open Doors estimates Kuwait’s Christian population as 436,000 while ranking the country as the forty-third most oppressive country for Christians in the world. However, Kuwait is the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country other than Bahrain to have a native Christian population with citizenship.
Amongst the expatriate Christian population, there is a shortage of churches, and only reform in policies relating to public gathering spaces will resolve this issue. “Apostates” (those who leave Islam) can have their marriages immediately annulled if the change in faith renders the marriage invalid according to traditional Islamic law (where a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman, but a Muslim woman may only marry a Muslim man).
Kuwait recognizes multiple Christian denominations but does not recognize non-Abrahamic religions publically.
Kuwait has a “Moderate” score from Pew’s Social Hostilities Index and a “High” score from Pew’sGovernment Restrictions Index.
While a Sunni monarch rules Bahrain, it is a Shia-majority country.
USCIRF gave Bahrain a “Tier 2” ranking (“High Level” of concern) for its discrimination and prejudice toward Shias. Pew ranks Bahrain in the “High” range for government restrictions and the “Moderate” range for social hostilities.
While Iran has tried to stir up opposition to the state, the government has used this as a pretense for discrimination against Shia Bahrainis.
Minorities, including non-Abrahamic minorities such as Buddhists and Hindus, can generally worship free from state interference. The government also just launched the King Hamad Center for Peaceful Coexistence, which is designed to promote religious tolerance and fight religious extremism.
On another positive note, Bahrain is one of three Gulf countries (the others being Oman and the United Arab Emirates) to receive a “Low” ranking from Pew’s Social Hostilities Index.
Oman currently sponsors a travelling exhibit called “Tolerance, Understanding, Coexistence: Oman’s Message of Islam,” and certainly markets itself as the most religiously tolerant country in the Gulf.
What makes Oman unique is the presence of Ibadi Muslims, who represent about 45 percent of the population (Sunnis represent 45 percent and Shias 5 percent) and predate the Sunni-Shia division. Also worth noting is the naturalized non-Muslim population of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and others who make up about 5 percent of the citizenry.
However, Open Doors describes Oman as “peaceful, but concerned,” and the State Department IRF Report warns that, while Oman has no laws against changing one’s religion, the country very recently increased penalties for blasphemy and outlawed groups promoting faiths other than Islam.
While the expatriate community worships in peace, their worship is limited to specific compounds, which are becoming overcrowded since several national and ethnic groups use them.
While Oman has a “Low” ranking from Pew’s Social Hostilities Index, it remains a “High” in the Government Restrictions Index.
United Arab Emirates
The United Arab Emirates deemed 2019 the “Year of Tolerance,” and the country has made meaningful, symbolic actions to improve Christian-Muslim relations, most notably by hosting Pope Francis for an official apostolic visit earlier this year.
As a result of a signed declaration between the pope and the grand imam of al-Azhar, the UAE established a higher committee to promote peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims.
Despite these improvements, Open Doorsranks the UAE as the forty-fifth-most repressive country in the world for Christians to reside in. For example, the death penalty remains the on-the-books punishment for converting from Islam, though it has not been used. For the expatriate community, there is a large shortage of space for churches and Christian gatherings.
Pew ranks Qatar in the “High” range for both the Government Restrictions Index and Social Hostilities Index. Open Doors ranks it as the thirty-eighth-most oppressive country in the world for Christians. The government only recognizes certain Christian communities and contains all churches in the Mesaimeer Religious Complex, a special zoned area outside Doha. Like the rest of the country, converts to Christianity are under extraordinary social pressure and often do not disclose their change of religious affiliation. The only two registered religions to have their own places of worship are Christians and Muslims.
People registered as Muslims may receive sharia punishments, such as flogging, for committing acts sinful in Islamic law.
The State Department notes that the Anti-Defamation League has raised the alarm of government-supported preachers and the government-owned Al Jazeera television channel for spreading anti-Semitic messages. Over 18,000 people did attend a Christian concert in Doha, and the Maronite patriarch laid the cornerstone of a church on government-owned land. The emir also donated funds for the construction of a Maronite parish in Lebanon.
Where Is the Improvement?
Unfortunately, religious intolerance is rampant in many of these countries, and the governments are genuinely trying to rein in religiously intolerant ideas. Most sponsor multi-faith dialogue initiatives and work to improve religious liberty for foreigners. But not one single Persian Gulf state seriously considers its own citizens’ religious liberty.
For example, while the Abrahamic Family House—a complex hosting a church, mosque, and synagogue—is a truly powerful testament of the UAE’s passion for peaceful religious coexistence, these developments should benefit the Emiratis themselves, who are denied religious liberty at the most basic levels. As Shadi Hamid recently wrote, “In the UAE, it is not Christians but Muslims who do not enjoy religious freedom.”
This example is symbolic for the region. Coexistence and tolerance are worthwhile initiatives for these governments. But the gestures are not substitutes for freedom, and these states must be held accountable to protect their citizens’ human rights.
Steven Howard is currently an MA candidate at the Institute of Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America and the National Outreach Director for In Defense of Christians.