“I have no doubt in my mind that in the Arabian peninsula there’s easily ten million Christians,” says Venerable Bill Schwartz, OBE, Anglican Archdeacon in the Gulf and Chaplain of Qatar. Speaking at SAT-7’s NETWORK conference in April 2018, Schwartz spelt out some of the astonishing results of the region’s meteoric economic development, driven by oil wealth.
Most notable is how the region’s religious mix has shifted in a totally unprecedented way as foreign workers have flooded in to benefit from the explosion of jobs. Today, at least 50 per cent of migrants and expatriates “have some kind of Christian tradition,” Schwartz believes. In Qatar, where foreign workers outnumber locals by 10 to 1, the country now has more Catholics than Muslims.
New church buildings – including one being constructed in Abu Dhabi to accommodate 5,000 people at a time – are one result of this phenomenon. Another is the opportunity for witness through lifestyle in societies that have been culturally isolated and “monochrome” for thousands of years.
Today, the migrant population – although transient – means that the Gulf states (the Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait) are anything but monochrome. And the Church especially expresses this diversity. Apart from Saudi Arabia, where there are no church buildings, other states have Christian compounds serving up to 150 congregations of different nationalities and language groups, all in one space!
“Opportunity” rather than persecution is the key word for Archdeacon Schwartz. This includes the opportunity to pastor Christians separated from their families for years at a time – as is the case for most in lower income jobs from the Philippines and India. There is the opportunity to teach believers how to explain their faith when local colleagues, who completely misunderstand doctrines like the Trinity, criticise them for their beliefs. Most importantly, there is the opportunity for Christians to demonstrate their faith and values by a Christian lifestyle to colleagues and contacts from many nationalities at this crossroads of the world.
When he moved to Qatar from Saudi Arabia ten years ago, Schwartz began building one of the first churches in the country for 1,400 years (five other churches began construction as well). As in most Gulf states, the Anglican complex is designed to serve the majority of churches that don’t have direct government recognition. In Doha this means that 85 congregations from different nationalities worship there every week, up to 18 congregations at a time, some 14,000 to 15,000 on a Friday! “You better not preach too long,” Schwartz says, “because there are hundreds queueing outside to begin their service!”
Ensuring that a church centre adequately serves this multilingual, multi-national Body of Christ is one of the joys of Dr Schwartz’s job. Pentecostals worship in rooms next to incense-burning Mar Thoma churches (from India), Tamil speakers next to Nigerians.
In fact, the growth of church buildings often fails to keep pace with the Christian presence. In some cases, groups prefer to rent hotel rooms or meet in villas, especially if they think they will be in the country for a limited time and don’t want to invest heavily in new buildings.
This is something governments don’t like, however, because they both want to monitor what is happening and protect churches from attack. Schwartz, too, thinks it is unwise because, he says, “We need to maintain government trust and ensure the church will be free to meet here 50 years from now.”
It would be a step too far to call the restrictions on Christians in the region “persecution”, Schwartz believes. He points out that, as Muslim countries, the states recognise they have a duty of care for “the people of the Book” (Jews and Christians). Consequently, Christians have greater freedom of worship than those from non-Abrahamic religions, like Hindus or Buddhists.
They don’t have a problem with Christians; they have a problem with secularism”
Schwartz admits that Gulf state citizens can “feel threatened in their identity” by being outnumbered by foreigners. There is a tendency for states to define themselves by their religion and by what they are not – especially that they are not Western. But Schwarz stresses: “They don’t have a problem with Christians; they have a problem with secularism, with Western values. These countries resent and resist secularism.”
Saudi Arabia is the country that experiences the most pressure from religious radicals (from foreign Muslim nations as much as from within). They take Mohammed’s command that “There shall not be two religions in the holy land” to apply to the whole of Saudi Arabia or even the entire Arab peninsula, whereas “most people think the words refer to the cities of Mecca and Medina,” Schartz explains. This is why churches are not permitted in Saudi Arabia, although there is, he says, a “vibrant Christian presence”.
Even so, Dr Schwartz admits that local citizens in any Gulf state would find it extremely difficult to identify publicly as Christian believers. He says the small numbers of local Christians that do exist need to be “very discrete”.
This does not prevent many others from non-Christian backgrounds coming to faith while working in the region alongside Christian colleagues. The workplace is the main centre of interaction between people from different cultures and faiths, especially among the professions.
In fact, Nebraska-born Shwartz says, “I have more opportunities to talk about faith in the Gulf than I ever do in the US because religion is so important here.”
Lindsay Shaw, SAT-7 UK Press and Communications Officer, grabbed the opportunity for a chat with the Ven Bill Schwartz in between sessions at SAT-7’s recent NETWORK conference. Watch the first part of the interview here: