Parishioners celebrate the inaugural Mass of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Doha, Qatar, in 2008. (photo: The Brigdeman Art Library)
Christianity’s roots in the Arabian Peninsula are ancient. Persian missionaries spread the Gospel to communities along the coasts of the Persian Gulf, establishing footholds first in Kuwait and then further south. In the third century, an eparchy was established in the Bahrain Islands, and by the fifth century, the area emerged as a major center of the Church of the East, whose reach stretched to the gulf’s most southern shores and throughout its many islands.
The Arabian Peninsula, however, is better known as the birthplace of Islam. Today, the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants are Muslim. Nevertheless, tiny communities of Christians survived the rise and dominance of Islam and continued to practice their faith, notably in Bahrain and Kuwait.
When in the late 20th century the peninsula’s oil-rich countries began diversifying their economies and opening up to international trade and finance, they opened their borders to experienced professionals from India, elsewhere in the Middle East and the West — many of whom were Christian. In the most affluent countries, such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, a need for unskilled labor has compelled governments to offer work permits to migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, again, many of whom are Christian. Thus, small yet diverse Christian communities have sprouted up in urban areas.
Bahrain. An archipelago of 33 small islands, Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy with a total population of about 738,000, including some 235,100 foreign nationals. The majority is ethnic Arab, though there are sizable expatriate communities of South Asians and other groups. Roughly 81.2 percent of the population is Muslim and about 9 percent is Christian. The remaining 9.8 percent is Hindu and other religions. Most non-Muslims are foreign nationals. However, Bahrain is home to small indigenous Jewish and Christian communities, which together make up some 1 percent of the population.
Bahrain’s constitution establishes Islam as its state religion and Sharia as the principal source of legislation. Yet, it also guarantees the freedom of religion. The government has earned a good reputation internationally for its respect of human rights, including the freedom of religion.
Kuwait. Kuwait has a total population of about 2.8 million people, including 1.3 million foreign nationals. The majority is ethnic Arab, though there is a large South Asian minority and a notable ethnic Persian minority. The majority (as much as 85 percent) is Muslim. Regionally, Kuwait has a comparatively large Christian minority, about as much as 12 percent of the population. Though most are foreign nationals, a small indigenous Christian community exists. Hindus and a small Jewish community make up most of the remainder.
According to the Annuario Pontificio, the Holy See’s yearbook, some 250,000 Catholics live in Kuwait, including Latin, Maronite, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics. Other denominations active in the country include Anglicans, Armenians, Coptic and Greek Orthodox and Evangelical Protestants.
A constitutional monarchy, Kuwait relies on Sharia as the principal source of legislation. The government generally upholds the right to practice religion other than Islam.
Oman. The second-largest country on the peninsula, Oman has a total population of about three million, including 577,000 foreign nationals. About three-quarters of the population is Ibadhi Muslim— a sect distinct from Sunni and Shiite Islam. Most of the remaining 25 percent is Sunni or Shiite. Non-Muslims, which include Christians, account for some 2.5 percent of the population.
Oman is an absolute monarchy. Sharia and quranic teaching are the principal sources of legislation. However, legislation prohibits discrimination based on religion and provides for the freedom of religion. The government generally upholds these provisions.
Qatar. An absolute monarchy on the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, Qatar has a total population of about 841,000. Most inhabitants are foreign nationals. Ethnic Arabs constitute the largest group, though they are not the majority. According to the country’s 2004 census, 77.5 percent is Muslim, 8.4 percent is Christian and the remaining 14 percent is Hindu, Buddhist or Bahai.
An emir governs the country. Sources of law include Sharia, civil law codes and the emir’s discretion. Currently, the emir is transitioning Qatar to a constitutional monarchy; a draft of a permanent constitution is under review.
Islam is the state religion. The draft constitution provides for the freedom of religion, though it places some restrictions on public worship by non-Muslims. As a matter of policy, the government tolerates Christianity and other non-Muslim religions.
In recent years, the emir has permitted the construction of several new churches, including Anglican, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Indian Protestant and Roman Catholic structures.
Saudi Arabia. The largest country in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia occupies 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula. Most of its 29.2 million people (including some 5.6 million foreign nationals) are Muslim. The Quran serves as the country’s constitution and Sharia is enforced.
Officially, Saudi Christians do not exist. The king recognizes, however, that many expatriates (an estimated one million people, mostly from India and the Philippines) are Christian.
Within the kingdom’s legal framework, the freedom of religion is not protected and non-Muslims are prohibited from practicing their religion in public. Theoretically, as a matter of policy, the government guarantees the right of non-Muslims to practice their religion in the privacy of their homes.
United Arab Emirates. A federation of seven states governed by absolute monarchies, the United Arab Emirates has a total population of about five million, less than 20 percent of whom are citizens. About 23 percent of residents are Arabs or Persians and more than half are South Asians. As much as 96 percent of the population is Muslim. Christians, Hindus and others, most of whom are non-Emirati residents, make up the remainder.
Though Islam is the official religion, the federal constitution guarantees, and the government upholds, the freedom of religion. Approximately 31 churches of various denominations are active across the country.
Yemen. Located on ancient trade routes, Yemen is one of the oldest centers of civilization. Though the only representative democracy on the Arabian Peninsula, it is also the least developed, and struggles with high unemployment, poverty and illiteracy.
Yemens total population is 23.5 million people, most of whom are ethnic Arabs. The vast majority is Muslim, with Sunnis only slightly outnumbering Shiites. As much as 2 percent is Druze and less than 1 percent is Jewish, Christian or Hindu. Some estimate that Christians number around 3,000 faithful. Yemen hosts a considerable Ethiopian refugee community — about 50,000 individuals — most of whom are Ethiopian Orthodox.
The country’s constitution guarantees the freedom of religion. However, laws derived from Sharia restrict aspects of this right among non-Muslims.