ECONOMIC BOOM EXPANDS CHRISTIAN WITNESS IN GULF
“I have no doubt in my mind that in the Arabian Peninsula there are easily ten million Christians,” says Venerable Bill Schwartz, OBE, Anglican Archdeacon in the Gulf and Chaplain of Qatar. In an interview with SAT-7, Schwartz spelt out some of the astonishing results of the region’s economic development.
Most notable is how the region’s religious mix has shifted in an extraordinary way as foreign workers have flooded in to benefit from the explosion of jobs. Today, at least 50 percent of migrants and expatriates “have some kind of Christian tradition,” Schwartz believes.
New church buildings 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 (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates) are anything but monochrome. And the Church especially expresses this diversity. Apart from Saudi Arabia has no church buildings, other states have Christian compounds serving up to 150 congregations of different nationalities and language groups, all in one space!
“Opportunity” is the key word for Archdeacon Schwartz. The diversity in these compounds presents a unique opportunity to pastor Christians separated from their families for years at a time. 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 believers to demonstrate their faith through their Christian lifestyle to others from many nationalities at this crossroads of the world.
A GROWING MULTILINGUAL, MULTI-NATIONAL CHURCH
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, Qatar, this means that 85 congregations from different nationalities worship there every week. There can be 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.
It would be a step too far to call the restrictions on Christians in the region “persecution”, Schwartz believes. He points out that these Arab 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.
In fact, 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.”