Religion In The Calm EyeScott Sutton January/February 2004
In the Middle East the freedom to practice various faiths is something rare; usually subject to the whims of rulers and clerics. But we are in an era of change.
The government of Dubai has encouraged local Christian churches to grow, the Saudi government has dismissed
anti-western Muslim clergy, and Iraqi Christians sense hope even while fretting about the future. u In a more or less calm eye of the Middle Eastern desert storms, the United Arab Emirates is a land of relative openness. The desire to be an open international center of finance, business and trade partly explains why the sheiks here are so tolerant of religion. Dubai, cosmopolitan and liberal, is probably the best place to live in this part of the world in terms of being free to practice one's faith. u In fact, some extraordinary things have been happening. One of the dailies, the Gulf News, reported last year that Easter "was celebrated with religious fervor and traditional gaiety among expatriate Christians in the capital." While Christians openly attended worship services in churches, supermarkets reported strong sales of Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies.
And Emirates Airline, the state airline, brought European tourists to Dubai on Easter-special sightseeing
packages. Dubai must be one of the few cities in the Islamic world where Christmas is so open, albeit often for financial reasons. Business owners enjoy the holiday sales. But that aside, it speaks well of Dubai that here schoolchildren may gather and sing Christmas carols in the shopping centers while Santa hands out gifts. An extraordinary event in the Middle East was an April 2, 2003, Christian prayer and healing "festival" held at the Dubai Handicapped Club. Standing in front of 100 victims of various physical disabilities, Rev. Dr. Lee Jae-Rock—a pastor of the Manmin Joong-Ang Church in Seoul, Korea—cried, "God can heal your every disease if you will only believe in Him!" As Russian and Arabic television crews recorded the service, Dr. Jamal Wasef, an Egyptian physician and Christian, translated the Korean's words into Arabic for the audience. Lee offered a short sermon and reports of previous faith-healing meetings, with video clips shown as evidence of the Lord's work.
As Rev. Lee prayed for those who were disabled and sick, several healings took place, and were verified by doctors present for just that reason. One teenager, who was deaf and could not speak, began chanting "Hallelujah" and "Amen." A local Arab woman in an abaya stood, threw down her crutches, and began walking.
Regardless of what one might think of the validity of the healing, the amazing aspect of the prayer meeting was that a representative of the government organization, Hamad Bil Jafla, arranged for Rev. Lee to come to the club.
Johnny Kim, director of Manmin World Mission, spoke after the service about the Dubai Evangelical Church Center, which began in 1998. Kim reported that once it goes into high gear, the center will "be a Christian oasis at a major crossroads in the Middle East . . . the aim is to build and manage a multiuser facility for worship and ministry, a church home for various Dubai-based ministries."
The sheiks are helping the cause of religious tolerance. In 2001 the ruling family of Dubai granted land to several churches: four Protestant, one Catholic, and a Greek Orthodox church. The emirates (states) of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, together with Dubai, contain more than 20 churches built on government-granted land. There are also Catholic primary and secondary schools. While the government does not support any Christian denominations, congregations are allowed to raise money, receive funding from overseas, and advertise church functions in the press.
One recipient of a generous land grant is the United Christian Church of Dubai, an interdenominational group of active Christians, that boasts more than 600 members from 40 nations. It is inspiring to sit in this congregation–a mini United Nations, whose members raise their voices to the Lord each week. After two morning English services, there is another in Arabic; at the same time down the hall, 70 Chinese Christians hold their service. As a whole, the people of UCCD are in the process of helping to build the interdenominational religious center that Kim had spoken of at the healing. Says Pastor Daniel Splett, "The vision is for this center to be an evangelical lighthouse in the Middle East, not only for our churches, but also for many other evangelical churches and also for missionaries, full-time workers, pastors, tentmakers, etc., to come to Dubai, where it is a lot freer."
Indeed, a recent report by the Assist News Service says, "God is moving among the foreign nationals living in Dubai, the second largest of the United Arab Emirates and a thriving center of commerce and tourism in the region." The report also praised the nearly 100 junior and senior high school students who attend a weekly student worship service, and the summertime youth camps that are well attended.
And evangelicals aren't the only movers and shakers. Daniel Khokar, an active Pakistani Seventh-day Adventist, organized a large-scale prayer meeting to welcome newly arrived Pastor Victor Harewood in November 2002. Under the title "A Gathering for Jesus," Daniel brought together more than 300 Christian brothers from a dozen denominations. After sending special invitations to various Christian friends in churches across the country, he received hundreds of dollars to help pay for the event. In attendance were preachers and choirs from the Assembly of God, Dubai Pentecostal, and several other churches, including the Adventists themselves. They came from the seven emirates to greet Pastor Harewood in brotherly love and sing praises to the Lord.
Outside the UAE things are grimmer in the tolerance department, nowhere more so than in Saudi Arabia, where public practice of Christianity is banned and even private worship is restricted. Non-Muslims found with as much as a religious pamphlet in their possession may be arrested, lashed, and deported. No Christian symbols are permitted to be worn, which means the Filipino housemaids can forget hanging a simple necklace sporting a cross around their necks, as they may do in Dubai. Interestingly, however, the government has now clamped down on anti-West clerics, dismissing Islamic preachers who were known for their virulent anti-American Friday sermons. According to the minister of Islamic Affairs and Guidance, Saleh Al Sheikh, "A preacher has no right to convey his own interpretation" of religion or politics to the people (Gulf News, Ap. 17, 2003).
In nearby war-torn Iraq, Christians remain apprehensive about their future. Once the bombing campaign began in earnest, news stopped coming out of Baghdad. Homer Trecartin, secretary-treasurer for the Middle East Union Mission of Seventh-day Adventists, along with Adventist members worldwide, prayed for the safety of the Baghdad church. Finally, on April 23, 2003, Trecartin received a call from Basim Fargo, secretary-treasurer in Iraq, who reported that "all the church members and their properties were fine." Miraculously, services at the Baghdad church were held every week except for one during the war. Now a new fear has emerged: Will Christians in Iraq be safe under a new government? Will their rights be protected? Under the autocratic rule of Saddam Hussein, Christians were given a measure of autonomy and the freedom to worship in what was a secular state. Saddam was busy suppressing the Shiites—the majority—and the Kurds, often ignoring Christians, who made up a nonthreatening 1.5 percent of the population. Some Christians also worry that their religion might make them seem pro-Western. According to international reports, a number of Iraqi believers fled to Lebanon, where they are in prison as illegal aliens. Now there is somewhat of a power struggle for a postwar Iraq, and with Shiite clergy are calling for an Islamic state, anything could happen.
How does all this tie in to religious freedom in the United States of America? While American eyes have been glued to CNN and FOX news coverage of the Gulf, American expatriates in Dubai, along with hordes of Britons, Europeans, Russians, and all the rest in the Dubai melting pot, have been watching events unfold in the U.S.A. They see anti-war protesters threatened and called unpatriotic, a lack of questioning of administration policy on the part of the media, and the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which was rushed through the House and Senate without much debate. Americans teaching at Zayed University in Dubai, for example, have concerns that the Patriot Act may violate several constitutional amendments: the first, fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth.
When I published an opinion piece in the Omaha World-Herald (2/24/03) decrying America's failure to heed European allies—a piece praised by U.S. senator Chuck Hagel—an army of e-mailers dismissed the need of allies or of a congressional approval to go to war. Perhaps they should have listened intently to Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D.Ohio). He said, "There needs to be a greater awareness among the members of the administration of the impact of their statements and their actions on the people of this country and the people of the world." The world can change for the better. And there are signs of religious freedom even in this complicated area. We need to work with and encourage those sometimes-tentative steps toward full religious liberty.
Scott Sutton, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, and a freelance writer, teaches English as a second language to young Arab women at a university in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.