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Religious Diversity in the Persian Gulf: Tolerated, but not Embraced

The oil-rich emirates of the Persian Gulf are allies of the West. They provide lucrative business opportunities and a strategic proximity to Iraq and Iran.

However, little is said about freedom of religion in the region.

It is not always possible for people living in these countries to express themselves freely and thus testimonies obtained by The Media Line (TML) as well as government documents do not always accurately depict the situation. Because of the guarded natures of these societies, there is little literature about the topic and even fewer people who are qualified and capable of discussing it.

Islam is the state-sponsored religion of every country surrounding the Persian Gulf including Saudi Arabia, but the large number of foreign workers in the region translates to a large non-Muslim population.

While smaller states like Kuwait and Bahrain have traditionally been friendly to those of other religions, primarily Christians, Saudi Arabia strictly prohibits religions other than Wahhabism, their official brand of Sunni Islam, from being practiced in public by law.

In reality, Saudi Arabia “tacitly tolerates” the practice of other religions, but only in private, explained Laurence Louèr, an expert on the Middle East and research director at CERI (the Center for International Studies and Research) in Paris.

However, “every attempt at propaganda is severely punished,” she said.

Moreover, conversion of a Muslim to another religion is punishable by death.

Even Shi’ite Muslims are not allowed to profess their faith openly. “It’s hard for Shi’ites to get jobs these days in oil companies,” according to Lewis Scudder, consultant in the Middle East Mission of the Reform Church of America and former assistant secretary-general of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC).

“They’re close but no cigar,” explained Scudder. “Shi’ites are considered heretics, worse than not being Muslim.”

The news website Ra’sid is published by “the Shi’ites of Saudi Arabia” and details the unjust detentions of Shi’ites, for among other charges, “performing religious rites” and “holding a book” against the state’s official ideology.

With a total population of 24 million, Saudi Arabia is home to as many as one million Catholics alone, according to the U.S. State Department, yet accurate information is hard to find because the community has been forced underground, according to various sources.

“Christians have established subterfuges,” according to regional sources, wherein “morale groups” denote churches and “special teachers” are ordained ministers. These euphemisms are used so that they can say that their country is free of churches.

At the same time, the Saudis are “under a magnifying glass and have to look as though they are being tolerant,” explained Scudder. They have to be more circumspect, he added.

As the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2003 for Saudi Arabia indicates, the U.S. is fully aware of the lack of freedom of religion, but it still has relations, particularly military, with the kingdom. In fact, the U.S.-led coalition attack on Iraq during both Gulf wars was assisted heavily by Saudi cooperation.

“The West has always tried to close its eyes to the internal politics of Saudi Arabia,” Louèr said. “This is dictated by economic and strategic interests.”

Several calls to Saudi Arabia’s ministry for Islamic Affairs were not answered.

Like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates have a long history of immigration, with many foreign, non-Muslim workers coming from the Indian subcontinent and the West, but their constitutions generally promote freedom of religion.

The kingdoms were home to significant Christian and Jewish communities before the spread of Islam and ruins of historic monasteries and churches can be found throughout the region.

Unlike in Saudi Arabia, Christian churches and missions as well as other religions, have become accepted in some states like Kuwait and Bahrain, but proselytizing is strictly prohibited.

TML made several attempts to contact the ‘Islamic Affairs’ ministries of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait, but received no responses.

(Maps: University of Texas)

Both Scudder and Riad Jarjour, the secretary-general of the Arab group for Christian-Muslim Dialogue, affirm that there is full religious freedom in the smaller Gulf states. Louèr maintains the same for Bahrain.

Last month, for example, Qatar’s prime minister said he would consider inviting Jews to the emirate’s annual Muslim-Christian dialogue conference, at the opening session of the 2004 summit, according to news reports. ‘Abdallah Bin Khalifa Al Thani said that he wanted to use monotheism as a common factor in bringing together people of different faiths.

Similarly, Qatar’s emir is seen as one of the more progressive figures in the Arab world, granting Christians moderate freedoms and calling for a permanent dialogue with the West.

Qatar generally tolerates Christians, but it’s a matter of not saying you’re Christian, according to Scudder.

In Bahrain, there are apparently several prominent families of Jewish and Christian origin. One Christian and one Jew were reportedly appointed to the legislative advisory council called the Shura in recent years.

Bahrain’s Shi’ite minority has experienced a degree of persecution particularly in employment, however they can be divided into two groups. One is composed of Arab-speaking Bahraini Shi’ites who consider themselves as Baharna, or “authentic Bahrainis.”

Several decades ago, the second group, Farsi-speaking and originating in Iran, faced discrimination and demonstrated for equal opportunities, but this is no longer a significant issue, according to Jarjour.

Religious dissenters were imprisoned in Bahrain until the emir pardoned all political prisoners including Shi’ites in 2001, according to the U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Report 2003 for that country.

Bahrain’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs website indicates a genuine effort to achieve a dialogue between Christians and Muslims. There were two conventions listed on the site: one dedicated to “rapprochement between the Islamic schools,” and another on a forum on the Christian and Muslim worlds.

With the exception of Oman, all government ministries dealing with religion refer exclusively to Islam in their titles, despite the large non-Muslim populations in their countries.

Oman’s ministry is called the “Ministry of Awqaf (religious trusts) and Religious Affairs,” but because its website makes no mention of a religion besides Islam, the nuance can be interpreted as insignificant. On the ministry’s website, the page entitled ‘religious affairs’ describes the state’s Grand Mosque meticulously.

Oman’s government has employed a policy of replacing foreign workers with Omanis since 1988, which can be interpreted as an attempt to decrease the number of non-Muslim residents.

Kuwait is an exception in the region in that it allows military groups to function for non-Muslims and in the variety and quantity of denominations represented.

Kuwait is also the only Gulf state with an indigenous (i.e. not foreign workers) Christian population, according to Riad Jarjour. However, it may be more accurate to say that they are the only openly-Christian group indigenous to the region.

The group consists of a few dozen families and the community was established at the beginning of the twentieth century by the Reform Church of America, according to Lewis Scudder, whose parents operated the missionary hospital in Kuwait until it was shut down in 1967.

Scudder explained that part of the reason that Muslim-Christian relations were amicable in Kuwait was because Christians were involved in humanitarian work, as they were in states like the UAE.

Attitudes started changing following the oil boom in the 1950s and 1960s, when an upsurge of local capital resulted in locally-built institutions and less dependence on foreigners.

The only mention of other religions on the website of Kuwait’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs is in the news updates section, but even in the unique case found, the article was linked to the Islamic world.

In recent years, there has been “growing anxiety” in Kuwait, according to Scudder. This is due to a “charismatic, exclusivist” group of Evangelical Christians who have “hijacked” Kuwait’s Christian community and have promoted conversions of both Christians and Muslims, he said.

On the other hand, ultra-conservative elements of Kuwaiti Muslim society oppose the non-Muslim presence in the country overall, according to the State Department.

The smaller gulf emirates have recently opened restaurants and other leisure locales for foreigners where Muslim law is not followed; Muslims generally have little freedom of religion within these states, although the situation varies by state.

While laws may exist against the importation of non-Muslim materials or conversion to Islam and the like, the enforcement of these laws tends to be lax to varying degrees, according to reports.

However, it is fair to say that, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states are on their way to cautious religious reform.