As millions of Christians flee the Middle East and Christianity’s original homeland becomes lacking of Christians at increasing rates, an odd anomaly is occurring: Christianity in the Gulf states is surging. Amid a shocking exodus in neighbouring countries, this strictly Islamic region has seen a jump in its Christian population.
Figures show that in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Christianity was practically non existent just over a hundred years ago. There were only 80 Christians in the UAE in 1910 (0.1 per cent of the population) and 50 in Saudi Arabia, even less than 0.1 per cent, according to a recent study. However one hundred years later in 2010, Christianity had exploded to 12.6 per cent of UAE’s population and 4.4 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s. Between the two countries alone there are now well over one million Christians. While by no means a majority, this represents a a significant growth in such a conservative Islamic region.
Indeed, this surge is not limited to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Throughout the Gulf, countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar have all seen dramatic increases to their Christian populations.
Converting from Islam to Christianity in the Gulf is punishable by death in both countries and evangelism is prohibited. In Saudi Arabia any public observance of non-Muslim faiths is illegal and Saudi Christians are forced to worship in private. However despite the dramatic increase, it is likely there will be little change to religious tolerance in the region. Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Islam, still dominates Saudi Arabia in particular and even in the relatively liberal UAE, Christian converts face severe persecution and no religious education other than the teaching of Islam is permitted.
Although the recent increase of Christians in the Middle East is truly amazing, many are asking why this is happening. Over the past few years, thousands of Middle Eastern muslims have claimed to have seen Jesus in dreams and visions; is this just a strange coincidence or is God actually trying to speak to these people before it’s too late?
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” // Acts 2:17
The future is therefore uncertain for Christians in the Gulf. But as Christianity loses its most ancient communities in the Middle East, the arrival of Christians in Islam’s most conservative heartland may be a source of hope to those praying for a revival in the Middle East.