Christianity originated in the Middle East. It was one of the major religions of the region until the Arab Muslim conquest in the 7th century. Today Christians make up just five per cent of the population of the Middle East. Reverend Andrew Thompson, the Senior Chaplain of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Abu Dhabi, says low birth rates and political turmoil are two of the contributing factors. As part of our inter-faith series Joanna Andrews caught up with Reverend Thompson and started by asking him about Christianity in the UAE.
The Reverend Canon Andrew Thompson (MBE) trained as a priest of the Church of England at Oxford and was ordained in Derby Cathedral. He holds degrees in Behavourial Sciences and Islamic Studies, and has penned several books on Christianity. His latest book, ‘Christianity in the UAE: Culture and Heritage’, celebrates religious tolerance in the seven emirates.
Tolerance & Understanding
Her Majesty's Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Dominic Jermey said, “As Ambassador of the United Kingdom, a country very proud of its multi faith heritage and identity, I am delighted to support this work. The UAE’s warmth towards Christianity and many other faiths is a wonderful legacy of [His Highness] Shaikh Zayed’s advocacy of an open and tolerant society.” HH Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, the then UAE Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research and current Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, quotes a verse in the Holy Qur’an in the foreword of the book, “‘O people! We have created you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another,’ to reach out towards one another and to live together in peace and harmony.”
He goes on to say, “Since its founding, the United Arab Emirates has followed that command. It has united people of differing faiths, found common ground among those who come from different religious traditions and harnessed the core values that are common to all religions. Now a leader in the region and a nation of global influence, the UAE continues to recognise that people of true faith share a common vision and that all religions provide people with comfort, hope and inspiration in a complex and difficult world.”
The UAE has always prided itself on its tolerance, with religious freedom enshrined in the constitution. Article 32 states that the “freedom to exercise religious worship is guaranteed in accordance with established customs and provided it does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals.” But sadly this is not replicated throughout the region. Reverend Thompson says that nowhere else in the world does the church face as much peril as the Christian Arabs of the Middle East. “Arab Christians in Palestine, Egypt, Iraq all face huge difficulties.
“Some of their challenges are shared with their neighbours such as endemic insecurity, poverty, lack of infrastructure, corrupt regimes, lack of educational opportunities... However, their Christian identity often is cause for specific and brutal persecution.”
Ironically, Christianity is seen as a Western religion thus the Arab Christians are perceived as being in sympathy with Western foreign policy and therefore are enemies. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Thompson.
“Muslim communities and the West need to be reminded that Christianity is a child of the Middle East and is therefore not alien to the region. There needs to be recognition that Arab Christians suffer along with all Arabs the effects of unstable or oppressive governments and hostile foreign policies. In short, there needs to be a return to a generous pan-Arabism which embraces pluralism in that each Arab minority group is protected and welcomed.”
Fertility, Persecution & Emigration
There are many reasons for the demise of Christians in the Middle East, like a declining birth rate when compared to other segments of the population. Christians have gone from roughly 20 per cent of the regions population in the early 20th century to no more than five per cent today. And things are unlikely to improve any time soon, according to Thompson. “A major factor which has diminished the Arab-Christian communities of the Middle East is emigration. Arab Christians are fleeing their homelands in pursuit of better education and lifestyles for themselves and their children.”
In the UK, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury issued a warning last year that in Britain Christianity is only a generation away from extinction unless churches make a dramatic breakthrough in attracting young people back to faith.
Thompson says Lord Carey’s comments reveal the spiritual bankruptcy of post modern Britain. “The effects of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Modernism all emphasize human reason as the guiding principle to truth. Ultimately, this has led to the glorification and worship of the individual ego resulting in breakdown of communal cohesion in every area from the family to society at large.”
He points out that there is a tremendous spiritual hunger in Europe, which manifested in a huge consumerism of products such as spiritual ‘self help’ books, yoga and meditation exercises. “The difference is that people seek to encounter God alone rather than in groups. Corporate worship has been replaced by an individual quest for an authentic spiritual experience. The importance of family, respect for elders, shared religious experiences is something the West can re-learn from the Middle East.”
In his book, Reverend Thompson says that when he tells people in the UK that he is a Christian leader working in the Arabian Gulf he receives a common response that it must be difficult and dangerous. So how do you change a mindset?
“It all comes back to positive education and positive encounters,” Thompson says. “Education (not to be confused with proselytization or evangelism) helps explains the ‘other’ and reduces ignorance. Encounters which promote mutual respect is an essential part of the process. There are a huge variety of platforms in which these encounters can take place. Through business, sport, music, movies and food.
“The role of interfaith relations in the form of dialogue can help facilitate this process. Dialogue at every level of society from the religious leaders, through to the academics down to promoting formative experiences between youth and children is essential for making friends and understanding each other. Finally, employing the use of media to promote ‘good news stories’ and tell of alternatives to violence and prejudice.”
Thompson points the finger firmly at the media for the rise in Islamophobia. “Sociologists have predicted this as part of a wider pattern of societies fracturing in a global economy into smaller units of identities. The constant remaking of ‘national states’ and redrawing of boundaries mean people are looking to an identity, which transcends these temporalities. This means a growth in religion and spirituality - conflict emerges as a result of this competition.
“While I do not buy into Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis as an inevitable outcome - the trends are worrying and the increasingly accessible media is largely responsible for perpetuating Islamophobia.”
A Supportive Society
However, there are pockets of hope. The story of Christianity in the UAE is one of heart-warming mutual friendship and service. Thompson says, “I tell this story more fully in the book Christianity in the UAE. The modern missionary movement in the early 1900s set the tone through serving the local people through medical ministry and education… One consequence of this service was that it laid the good will for the church communities to be welcomed and provided for through the building of worship centres.”
He says to this day the UAE government continues to be generous to the Christian community (and other faiths) through the provision of land for more centres of worship and through sponsoring significant dialogue initiatives.
His parting words of advice are for other countries to take a leaf out of the UAE’s book. “The UAE has a great story to share with the world. Whereas there is so much suffering in other countries because of inter-faith communal conflict the UAE authorities have managed to embody tolerance and friendship on a massive scale. This is worth celebrating and sharing with the global community.”