The Arabian Rites

The shrine below the mosque
The shrine below the mosque

There is no shortage of articles on how Christians are suffering in the Islamic world, this being a recent example from Raymond Ibrahim, who is an Arabic speaking American with a deep insight into the whole Middle East Islamic menace, and broadly speaking, he’s absolutely right. Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya – all countries where Christians have lived, fairly happily, in large numbers for centuries, when they weren’t Islamic fiefdoms. Dictators tended in practice not to pick on the Christians – or the Jews.

That said, in the last week this fascinating piece by John Allen, a famous Vaticanista, now with the Boston Globe, has sparked a lot of interest. Allen’s thesis is that despite the evidence – which is substantial – of religious oppression, there are growing pockets of Christianity in the Arabic Muslim states. Minus Saudi Arabia of course, who are as uncouth as they are rich.

If you’ve visited Dubai, you’ll see the reason why.  There are literally hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from India, and other countries further east like the Phillipines. Lots of Indians – especially from the western states –  are Catholics, most Filipinos are. What you end up with is a massive service sector workforce, who need to be made sufficiently welcome to stay, and so if you’re smart, you will cater to their needs beyond the strict transaction of the weekly wage.

11 years ago The Knife was in Dubai, staying at the impressive Madeinat Jumeirah, all work-related, naturally. On the Friday night I asked the Keralese taxi driver to take me to the Catholic church – at the time I had no certain idea that there was one, Muslim country etc etc. Frankly it seemed a long shot.  He pulled up outside St Mary’s church, which was right next to a new mosque. One of my Emirates colleagues informs me that’s some sort of tactic – stick a big mosque next to a church – but it was a remarkably benign coexistence.

It turned out that as the immigrant workers usually worked through the weekend, their Sunday obligation to attend mass was counted over Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which meant 18 masses, in English alone. Compare that to the average US or European parish of 2 to 3, quite extraordinary. It was a very big church, and it was packed on Friday evening. Standing room only packed. I think I was the only European in the building. That, I understand was typical for any of the weekend services. You will see nothing quite like that in the UK.

I then discovered that far from this being some sort of covert worship, the anglophile Maktoum dynasty who run Dubai had shelled out a substantial sum to help build the church. That’s exactly what King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain is doing there. There are 2.5 million Catholics alone on the Arabian peninsula, about a third of the number in the UK, and the number is increasing.

The point in all this is that Ibrahim and Allen are both right. Christians are suffering badly in the Middle East, which is after all, their original home, but in stable countries – usually benignish dictatorships –  they are thriving, and in a big way. Who would have thought it?

A full house
A full house
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