Christians in the Arabian Peninsula

The church is alive and well in the A rabian Peninsula. That is one of the truths I encountered upon becoming a pastor of the Protestant Church in Oman two years ago. In the land where Islam began, the Christian church prospers.

Originally, Christians came to Arabia from Persia. The Nestorian Church established a bishopric in Sohar, Oman by 424 A D, but the rise of Islam 200 years later largely eclipsed the church for centuries. After 1,000 years passed, European colonizers built forts along the seacoasts, making sure that Christian chapels were included in the forts. The church’s current presence, however, was established through the missionary movement begun in the late 19th century.

As an illustration of the church’s vitality, consider Easter Sunday in Muscat, Oman. The first thing to say is that Easter is not a holiday in the regional birthplace of Islam. The second thing to say is that Sunday is a work day. If an employee has a day off, it is Friday, which is also the day of worship on the Arabian Peninsula.

On Easter Sunday, I left my home at about 4:30 am, at the very time the call to prayer rang out in the darkness, inviting men to pray in the mosque, reminding everyone that “It is better to pray than to sleep.” I was on my way to an outdoor sunrise service.

A truck-load of white plastic chairs was rented. A long, orange electric cord delivered electricity to a Yamaha Clavinova, the preferred instrument for musical accompaniment. At 5:30 am, while it was still dark, the service began with a call to worship. Then we stood and sang “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” and tears came to my eyes, which is often the case on Easter morning but was more emotional for me that day because we were a minority Christian group singing in the early morning out-of-doors for all to hear.

About 800 people came to worship that day. No one came under social pressure to attend or because joining a church was part of climbing the social ladder. In fact, some may have lost social standing on account of their attendance. They came because they wanted to be there, even though it was a work day, and they would have to scramble in order to arrive at their workplace on time.

The church is alive and well in the A rabian Peninsula, but there are difficulties. Most churches have struggles, no matter where in the world they are located. In the Middle East, the struggles can be profound. That is the case with St. George’s, our sister Anglican church in Baghdad, Iraq. Recently eleven members of the church were killed. They were not just killed; they were brutally murdered. They were not common members of the church; they were the leaders. The pastor was killed. The music leader was killed. The Christian education director was killed. And on and on it went because the killers targeted the leaders of the church in order to eliminate the strength of the church and demoralize the remaining members. But the killers failed to grasp the resolve of those church members. Despite the serious losses, the church is strong, faithful, and growing.

St. George’s Church inspires Christians in Oman. A year ago, we had house groups throughout the country. The house groups were established in order to provide a place for worship and education where people lived too far away from the four government-approved places of worship in Ruwi, Ghala, Sohar, and Salalah. More recently, the government required that those house groups be closed. Christians are not allowed to gather for worship, prayer, or Bible study in any place other than four approved church compounds. The government is watching to see whether or not the rules are obeyed. There are various types of surveillance. Sometimes Christians break the rules and gather in homes for worship, but some have been raided and threatened with deportation.

Despite those restrictions, or even on account of them, the church is growing. Perhaps problems produce stronger Christians. I would not wish them on anyone but each week there is profound joy when Christians gather in Oman. There is deep meaning when we assemble at approved places for word and sacrament, infused with a sense of privilege over the opportunity. Despite difficulty in the Arabian Peninsula, the Christian church is alive and well.

Edward H. Schreur is senior pastor of the Protestant Church in Oman.