In the UAE, I’m never asked about religion, and find it’s rarely a topic that comes up in conversation. In Europe this summer, meeting new people and explaining my British/Lebanese background subsequently raises questions. A few politely refrain, although curious, but it’s interesting how many directly inquire as to whether I’m Muslim or Christian. This invariably leads to a discussion about religion in the UAE, with people often presuming, “There are no churches there, right?”
Whilst churches are not allowed in Saudi Arabia, there are several churches from countless denominations in the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and most recently, Qatar. Construction on the first church in Abu Dhabi was begun in 1962. Land is typically donated by rulers so that churches can be constructed. There are no bells ringing out, no crosses on tall spires, no ancient stone or stunning Gothic architecture. But contrary to many expectations, churches in the Gulf do exist.
On Friday, the Catholic church announced that it would be shifting its Northern Arabian headquarters from Kuwait to Bahrain. The apostolic vicariate represents an estimated two million Catholics in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The reasons given were geographical and logistical, such as the comparative centrality of Bahrain and the ease of obtaining visas to enter the country. But the decision may have more to do with recent hostility to churches in Kuwait.
In February this year, Kuwaiti MP Osama al-Munawar called to remove all churches from Kuwait. He later clarified his comments, stating he had meant that new churches should not be constructed. Whether al-Munawar will actually submit the proposed draft law remains to be seen, given the problems of the boycott-stricken Kuwaiti parliament whose dissolution followed by another election is now expected.
But a month after al-Munawar’s comments, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdulla said to a Kuwaiti delegation that churches in the Arabian Peninsula needed to be destroyed, sparking indignation from church groups. In April, there was resistance from parliament over giving land for an Armenian church, although the project had support from the ruling family.
The Vatican’s decision to relocate their headquarters to Bahrain may have had more to with politics than they are letting on.
The Gulf countries are so frequently lumped together, in regional analysis and through their own GCC union. However, I am occasionally reminded about the vast differences between them.
Looking back, I’m amazed at how many occasions were held in the Anglican church next to my Abu Dhabi primary school. Harvest festival (in Autumn, despite the UAE lacking the four seasons of more northern climates), Mothering Sunday, and the Christmas Nativity were all held in the church. Muslim students were excused if they wished, but as far as I can remember everyone participated, not wanting to miss out.
In retrospect, what I appreciate most is the international congregation of the UAE’s churches. There are services in multiple languages, and different churches are normally grouped together. A large plot of land in Jebel Ali on the outskirts of Dubai, has church complexes including Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Mar Thoma and Evangelical. The communities found at churches are far more equitable and equalising than most other interactions between expatriate nationalities. French, Indian, Irish, Arab, Filipino, and American can be found at the same packed Christmas Eve service, side by side.