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Religion and Society

Christians with the Obligation of a Low Profile

Freedom of religion, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly: people who live in the West pay little heed to these three phrases but such is not possible for the minorities that livein the region of Gulf, where variations, nuances, and restrictions are the order of the day.The laws and customs of the majority impose forms of behaviour based on discretion and a forgoing of the visibility of signs and gestures. But such limitations do not impede presence and witness.

A year ago I met a European theologian who spoke enthusiastically about 'freedom of religion' in the United Arab Emirates, particularly in Abu Dhabi and in Dubai. He referred to the fact that some rulers years ago had given land to the different Christian denominations that had asked for places of worship. Indeed, the Christians are very grateful to the rulers in Bahrain, Kuwait, in some of the United Arab Emirates, in Oman and recently in Qatar, for having given them land and the necessary permission to build places of worship.



However, we have to be clear about concepts. 'Religious freedom' as a basic human right means the liberty of the individual person to make his or her individual choice as to which religion if any he or she wishes to belong. 'Freedom of worship', on the other hand, means that the faithful of whatever religion are allowed to worship God as individuals, and together with others who share the same faith, freely. Therefore, this freedom is intimately connected with 'freedom of assembly'. In most countries of the world, freedom of assembly is limited by the rules of 'law and order'. In some countries, even in the Arabian Gulf, restrictions reach such a point that freedom of assembly is very limited or practically inexistent. Furthermore, we have to look not only at the letter of Constitutions and of laws in countries, but also, and even more, at how they are applied or not applied in practice.



When we consider the situation in the countries of the Arabian Gulf, we should observe that all of them are Islamic countries where freedom of religion exists in a limited way. That is, the individual is allowed to maintain his or her adherence to a religion. No Muslim is allowed to convert to another religion. A non-Muslim may convert to the religion of his or her choice. The Catholic Church in the Gulf respects these restrictions for reasons relating to the security of the individual involved and in order to maintain the limited freedom of action possessed by those who belong to the Catholic Church. It is obvious that this situation does not correspond to the Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations.



Freedom of worship as a social act is guaranteed at least in specific places in all Gulf countries except one. With respect to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the following paragraph of the International Religious Freedom Report 2005 released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. Department of State, and also confirmed by other sources, declares as follows: 'Freedom of religion does not exist. Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. Religious freedom is not recognized or protected under the laws, and basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam. Citizens are denied the freedom to choose or change their religion, and many non-citizens, including Muslims, practise their beliefs under severe restrictions.


The Government limits the practice of all but the officially sanctioned version of Islam and prohibits the public practice of other religions. During the reporting period, the Government publicly restated its policy that non-Muslims are free to practise their religions at home and in private; however, the Government does not always respect this right in practice.'


With respect to freedom of worship, the same report says: 'The Government continues to state publicly that its policy is to allow non-Muslim foreigners to worship privately. However, the Government does not provide explicit guidelines such as the number of persons permitted to attend private services and acceptable locations for determining what constitutes private worship, thereby leaving the distinction between public and private worship unclear. This lack of clarity and instances of inconsistent enforcement led many non-Muslims to worship in fear of harassment and in such a way as to avoid discovery by police or Mutawwa'in.'



In the other Gulf countries we generally have the following situation: freedom of worship is guaranteed to the various Christian Churches and communities within the compound given to them for this purpose. Worshipping at a low-profile level may be granted or at least tolerated in rented halls or private houses.


Restrictions in some countries are due rather to the provocative activities of some Christian zealots or in particular of some fundamentalist groups of other religions. Some of the latter have been suspected of being supportive of terrorist acts. Although freedom of worship is restricted, we have to refrain from overly simplistic judgments.


Many actions and reactions are not against a particular religion (e.g. the Christians), but rather against groups supposed to be engaged in, or suspected of becoming in the future, cells of insurrection or illegal action.


In Gulf countries where freedom of worship exists and the construction of places of worship is permitted, Christians are obliged to respect, and in their own interest are well-advised to observe, the rule of the 'low profile' out of respect for predominant Muslim religious culture. Church buildings should not show any particular external religious signs (e.g. a cross, statues of saints). The planning of buildings, especially churches, has to take into account that the premises should not be more prominent than surrounding constructions, especially mosques. For similar reasons, the construction of towers or the ringing of bells is not allowed.



In all Gulf countries except Saudi Arabia the Christian denominations have places of worship or church buildings. Catholics have churches in Bahrain (the first, on the Gulf side, was built in 1939), in Kuwait, in the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Al Ain, Jebel Ali and Fujairah), and in Oman (Muscat/Ruwi, Muscat/Ghala, Salalah and Sohar). In Qatar (Doha) permission for the construction of a church has been given and work was begun at the end of 2005. We can also add Yemen, where the presence of the Catholic Church on the Arabian Peninsula began in the nineteenth century and the first church, that of the Holy Family, in Aden, was built as early as 1854.



As regards freedom of worship, I would also mention the presence not only of priests but also of several religious Congregations who are doing a marvellous job, and not only in schools in some of the small Gulf countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Fujairah) but also in homes for physically and mentally handicapped people in Yemen (Aden, Taz, Sana'a, Hodeidah). The religious sisters, easily recognised by their habits, are usually treated with great respect. The priests, also, do not need to hide, although prudence in some places may advise discretion.


Religious instruction (catechism) for children is given outside school in the available rooms on the parish compound. In the schools of the United Arab Emirates, three lessons of religious education per week are compulsory by law. In the church-owned schools of the U.A.E. we have the right to divide instruction into instruction in the Koran for the Muslims, Catechism for Christians, and Ethics for others.



As I mentioned above, the restrictions on freedom of worship in most of the Gulf countries are not primarily restrictions on a particular religion but, rather, general measures taken for security reasons. Thus in some countries the Ministry for Islamic Affairs operates as the regulatory authority for the imams and the mosques, with control in particular over the Friday sermons. For non-Muslim religions there are no such authorities which interfere in the celebrations or in the contents of preaching. In Oman, a priest who applies for a visa has to present a detailed curriculum of his education and training.


The fact that religious gatherings are limited to official places (mosques, churches), unless particular permission is given, is due to the need for control that is felt by the political authorities. In practice there is a certain tolerance even in Saudi Arabia as long as the gatherings and celebrations of the faithful are at a low profile and do not disturb the adherents of the religion of the majority.