Christians in Arab Gulf face hurdles to worship
(Photo: Worshippers pack the first Mass at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Doha, March 15, 2008/Fadi Al-Assaad)
Every Friday in the Muslim Gulf Arab state of Kuwait, 2,000 worshippers cram into a 600-seat church or listen outside to the mass relayed on loudspeakers, prompting their Roman Catholic bishop to worry about a stampede. “If a panic happens, it will be a catastrophe … it is a miracle that nothing has happened,” said Bishop Camillo Ballin.
These churchgoers represent only the tip of the iceberg. Ballin reckons his flock in Kuwait numbers around 350,000 out of a total of half a million Christians in the country.
At least 3.5 million Christians of all denominations live in the Gulf Arab region, the birthplace of Islam and home to some of the most conservative Arab Muslim societies in the world. The freedom to practice Christianity — or any religion other than Islam — is not always a given in the Gulf and varies from country to country. Saudi Arabia, which applies an austere form of Sunni Islam, has by far the tightest restrictions.
This week, Saudi media said 13 Filipinos had been charged with proselytizing after a raid on a Riyadh hotel where nearly 150 people had been attending a private Catholic Mass.
(Photo: Kuwaiti Emmanuel Benjamen al-Gharib (C), pastor of the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait, 9 Jan 1999/Stephanie McGehee)
Christian leaders fret that their ability to worship is often compromised by lack of access or space, an issue they will raise at the Vatican next week during a synod of bishops called to discuss the fate of Christian minorities in the Middle East.
See also our factbox on Christians in the Middle East and analysis Vatican synod to mull Middle East Christian exodus.