Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Partially Recognized Rise of Christianity in the Modern Middle East

News stories about Christianity in the Middle East are usually negative.  The typical news story usually is a) the demographically stable Coptic Church is involved in street fights against the Muslim Brotherhood, b) Eastern Catholics and Orthodox from the Levant emigrating out of the region, or c) about the Assyrian and Chaledon Catholic churches being reduced in half in their native Iraq because of violence.  For many it appears that the sun is about to set on the 2,000 years of Christianity in the Middle East.

However, according to the National Catholic Reporter there is a hidden growth of Christianity in the Middle East.  The large presence of guest workers from Christian communities in India, Vietnam, Malaysia, and especially the Philippines are causing Christianity to reappear in places where it has been extinct.  Because the sheer mass of guest workers from other countries (Arabs in Qatar are the minority, for example) it is plausible that Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have either large Christian minorities or are even majority Christian.  Even Saudi Arabia has somewhere between one and a half to two million Christians.

There are two reasons why many demographers (and therefore people) have failed two register the Middle Eastern rise of Christianity: oppression/heavy control and the temporary/permanent debate.

Most Arabian countries heavily control Christianity and are like Qatar which allows one active Latin and Eastern Catholic church (I visited the Latin-rite church) however the main church is outside of Doha in the desert and it is not allowed to advertise its presence.  The United Arab Emirates allows the presence of the bishop for the Catholic apostolic vicariate of Arabia.  Saudi Arabia's on the other hand bans group practice of Christianity outright and its religious police seek out hidden masses.  This control of Christianity keeps it out of sight and therefore out of mind.  The control of the practicing of Christianity also extends to keeping these people out of censuses and official denials about the amount of Christians in country.  The regimes on the Arabian peninsula, including secular Yemen, gain legitimacy from keeping their countries Arab (which is sometimes used as a code word for "Muslim").  To recognize the rise of Christian non-Arabs would greatly harm the regime in the eyes of its Arab "native" subjects.

The term "guestworker" is loaded.  One taxi driver I had in Saudi Arabia was a "guestworker" who had lived in Saudi Arabia for over thirty years and had no plans to go back to his native country.  Meanwhile the Bengali pool lifeguard told me he had been in Doha for seven years and told me about his kids who go to school in Qatar.  These "guestworkers" are in country so long and are such a large portion of the population that they should be considered in any understanding of a country.  However, considering these people as temporary invalidates them on one's mental cultural landscape and demographic understanding of a country.

The rise of Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula does not equal the decline in the rest of the Middle East.  Ignoring the loss of historical tradition, many of the incoming Christians lack both personal and religious rights.  They also can be evicted at any time.  Until these Christians are given permanent status the rise of Christianity will be ignored and potentially reversible.

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