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Rooted in migrancy — like all churches

by
19 February 2016

The millions of Christians in the Gulf and Arabia should not be dismissed as expatriates, says Michael Lewis

A church of movers: Holy Trinity, Dubai

A church of movers: Holy Trinity, Dubai

THERE are two stories of Middle Eastern Christianity. One of them is barely known. While responsible voices warn that in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Palestine/Israel, the faith risks becoming a rarity, a memory, or a theme-park tourist attraction, in the lands of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula the numbers of worshippers, or would-be worshippers, are astonishing. Every weekend, the compound of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Dubai hosts about 25,000 Christians in 125 denominations and fellowships.

The largest of these is the King’s Revival, a Pentecostal church of about 1400, mainly Indians and Africans. Two other Pentecostal groupings, Dubai City Church and the New Testament Church (the latter serves Keralan Christians), account for 500 each, as do the Malayalam-language and Tamil-language congregations of the Church of South India, with whom we are in full communion. At the other end of the scale are fervent gatherings of 20 or 30 worshippers. Anglican liturgies on Friday and Sunday attract a cosmopolitan total of about 300.

Figures approach those at St Andrew’s, in Abu Dhabi; the Epiphany, in Doha; and elsewhere, too. My colleagues, the two Roman Catholic bishops of Arabia, report priests exhausted by the flood of expectant believers which pours into every one of their churches each Friday. They estimate that they have about one million co-religionists in Saudi Arabia alone, although only a tiny proportion there have any opportunity to gather.

Both stories of Christianity here are true. Of course, “the Middle East” has as much and as little precision as “Europe”. Even in my own diocese, when I visit the Yemen, it can feel as distant from, say, the United Arab Emirates as Moldova does from France. Culture, economics, and politics vary greatly.

 

THERE is another factor that affects the Churches’ presence and witness, in good times as well as bad. It has to do with remembering and forgetting. Not only did Christianity exist and flourish centuries before Muhammad and Islam in the Levant (Syria, the Lebanon, Palestine/Israel), and in Jordan and Iraq: it has continued and co-existed, despite hardships, to the present day. Iraqis remember very well that there are indigenous Christians. The indigenous Christians are, even now, proud Iraqis.

Yet, in those first centuries, Christians also lived and prospered in lands that today have completely forgotten that historical presence. The missionary Church of the East, working down the Gulf from Mesopotamia, established churches and monasteries on islands such as Sir Bani Yas, now in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.

The region Bet Qatraye encompassed not only present-day Qatar, but also Bahrain, and the neighbouring mainland. Its bishops attended synods, and it sent out saints and scholars such as Isaac of Nineveh. In the south-west of Arabia, Najran was a well-known centre of Christianity. By the ninth century, however, it had faded throughout the peninsula, and the chain of memory was lost.

The result is that there is almost no indigenous Christianity in these lands of broken memory, and Christians were very rarely allowed citizenship, even if they have spent their whole lives in, say, Dubai or Oman. Yet we are millions. So who are we?

 

A SAMPLE survey, a few years ago, reckoned that more than 80 per cent of Gulf Christians are from elsewhere in Asia. The majority are from the five nations of the Indian subcontinent, and many are figure from countries in south-east Asia, such as the Philippines, and Indonesia.

Korean and Chinese believers are growing in number. There are Arab Christians from elsewhere in the Middle East. Europeans, North Americans, and citizens of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa account together for only about six or seven per cent.

Since most countries give visas only for workers and their immediate dependants, with 65 or even 60 as the usual age-limit, it is a rarity to see old people in church. Christians are present across the whole socio-economic spectrum, from oil-company bosses to domestic servants and road-sweepers. Church on Friday, or Sunday, is about the only place where they can mix.

Our Anglican presence, although modest, is unique, in that in most locations we build compounds and facilities big enough to host groups of non-Anglican believers who would otherwise have no access to a registered place of worship: hence the numbers given here.

This practical ecumenism is complemented by excellent relations among those heading the mainline historical Churches, and a Gulf Churches Fellowship for bishops, senior pastors, and other leaders is now well established.

Notable examples of Christian-Muslim encounter and dialogue exist, such as the Al Amana Centre in Muscat, under whose auspices Professor David Ford, from Cambridge University, has been an eloquent exponent of Christian theology to a mixed Muslim-Christian audience in the Grand Mosque.

 

AND yet this, the second story of Middle Eastern Christianity, is sometimes discounted both by the wider Christian world (if it notices it) and by the understandably proud indigenous Christians of the lands of unbroken memory and presence. I am told that, since Gulf Christians are “migrants”, or “expatriates”, the impressive numbers are illusory.

The distinction between the terms is, however, invidious and false: every expatriate British executive is also a migrant, and every Nepali construction worker or Eritrean maid is also an expatriate.

More radically, the Christian story is rooted in migrancy, and the leaving behind of native lands — what else did God call Abram to do? The Christian norm is movement, following the Son of Man, who, unlike foxes and birds, had nowhere to lay his head.

Here, indeed, we have no abiding city; we look for the city to come (Hebrews 13.14). Inhabitants of Middle Eastern Christian stories, along with the rest of the Christian world, should rejoice that we are there, however we got there, and wherever God is going to lead us.

 

The Rt Revd Michael Lewis is the Bishop in Cyprus & the Gulf, in the province of Jerusalem and the Middle East.

He is speaking on this subject tomorrow at John Keble Church, Mill Hill, in London. For further information, visit www.cms-uk.org/GetInvolved/Events.

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