Monday, September 25, 2006

Coincidence? And Fun with Maps

Strangely enough, in the past few weeks of being home I've run into two Iranians (one at the gas station, another at a 'Middle Eastern' market I checked out - which I had hoped was Levantine . . . but was Iranian) who both were very passionate that Bahrain was a part of Iran 'not very long ago.' Is it a coincidence that these two presumably unconnected Iranians have the same views on this small nation? I think not. I think it shows an Iranian mindset about many of the GCC nations - those are within Iran's historic sphere and ought to be again.

OK guys, Iran ruled Bahrain after the Portugese left in the 1600s, until the Al-Khalifa's took control in the late 1700s. Making the claim that Bahrain belongs to Iran is like the Spanish making the claim that California still belongs to Spain. Sorry . . . it just ain't so. Moreover, it's an Arab culture, speaking Arabic and it's not a Persian culture, although it's been influence by Persia from time to time. My response is - GET OVER IT!

But a couple of hundred years is small change in the Middle East. It's no wonder that Iran has, within the last 10 years, sought to foment a coup and encourage the Islamic Revolution to grow in Bahrain (God help us if that happens!). Pull out your maps and consider what the strategic impact of THAT would be in the Middle East.

One wants to tell these Iranians living in the U.S. - hey! We're allies with the nation of Bahrain. We don't really think highly of the idea of any Iranian desires to reannex the country! Don't forget you're living here now!

But . . . it's a free country. The right to voice a contrary opinion is what we fight for, in part.

+ + + + +

Ok - I got a link to this flash show of Imperialism in the Middle East. Let's just say, on a 10,000-foot overview, not too shabby in getting the idea across. Lots of nitpicks one could make.

Hopefully it'll imbed:

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

And the Response from the Bahraini Blogging Community is . . .

is . . .

Well, I can't really find that the relatively small, largely moderate Muslim blogging community in Bahrain is all that excited about the Pope's comments. Actually, I couldn't find any particular post at all.

Everyone there is focused on the parliamentary elections, and tensions about that are probably as high as they were here in the last presidential election.

The newspapers duly report the demonstrations here and there. Maybe there have been some demonstrations, but I've not heard of any yet over the issue.

A cleric in nearby Qatar called for a 'day of anger' on Friday. Friday is the usual day for marches and demonstrations.

It's nice to see that things which we think newsworthy here (or our media thinks is so) aren't necessarily at the top of the list in all Middle Eastern countries.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone . . .

Oh ye who live in glass houses . . .

I had an object lesson today. I went over for a bite to eat . . . Friday fasting lunch no less . . . and then popped into the Apple Store in the shopping area and looked around. I was delighted to find Dr. Seuss' ABC program (my youngest, who has some motor problems, loves the video and the computer empowers him in many ways). On impulse I also purchased the 2007 Encyclopedia Britannica 'Ultimate DVD' program which has 'elementary, student, and adult' encyclopedae in it. Whoo-hoo!

So I take my little cool sack of goods, and proceed out onto the street where I am accosted by a woman with sores on her face, a handful of nickles and pennies, asking for money for lunch. I know this woman. She's hit me up before. I used to carry meal cards that were good for a hot meal and drink at a private cafe here in town that provides jobs for a few, meals for those with cards, or low cost meals for purchase. The last time we met I offered her one of these and I got a heap of abuse for offering (she doesn't like the place) and a refusal to take the coupon.

So here she is again . . . and I have no cards on me for meals . . . and suspicious me whose been around courthouses a long time sees her and says to m'self: 'meth addict' and I decide to tell her I'm sorry, not today.

She responds:

"Damnit . . . and you go to [the?] Church too, and you just bought yourself something, and just ate, didn't you? . . . God damn it!"

So I walked back with her curse reverberating in my mind . . . thinking about how smug I am blogging and worrying about the Antiochian Archdiocese's stance on Hizb Allah and where the aid money's going in Lebanon when I have no clue where my pocket money really goes on a given day, and how I might have just had a little brush with the accuser speaking through the mouth of this poor child of God. And now I sit wondering - do I get a gift certificate for her from a local food joint, or take a meal to her? And if she refuses that and curses me, as she has before, will I have the words of life to say to her on my lips?

Such are my thoughts on this Friday. Feed My sheep.

Adsum, Domine.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Sad and Disturbed by Some Current Issues

Over at Paradosis there's been a flame war going on over the Antiochian hierarchs' apparent bias in openly condemning Israel and not condemning equally other forces of violence and mayhem in Lebanon such as Hizb Allah. I am saddened about the issue James raises, and also the back and forth shots folks have taken at one another over this issue in the comments.

As an Orthodox Catechumen in an Antiochian diocese, I am also deeply saddened to see articles like this:

Syria's Christians rally behind Hizbollah

I am not naive about the realities of Middle East politics, nor about historic sentiments about Arab unity amongst, particularly, the Arab Christian population, and as I discussed in earlier posts, there is arguably a strong drive by non-Muslim groups in predominately Muslim nations to exhibit loyalty to the state due to the presumption of less-than-loyal adherence inherent in not following the dominant religion. Moreover, Christian and Muslim Arabs have for many years consistently been frustrated by Israel, for a variety of reasons.

I am also hardly naive about the possibilities of Reuters being the victim of a media bias in its correspondents in the Middle East, or of Syrian Christians saying, defensively and protectively, all sorts of things on the news that they don't really believe. Such a report thus may be suspect, or at least should be subject to further confirmation from other sources.

Nevertheless, what does Christianity have to do with the likes of Hizb Allah in its conflict with Israel or its goals to promote a particular rather Persian-oriented view of Islam in بلاد ألشام, i.e., Greater Syria? And, when Christians fleeing villages in South Lebanon reported that Hizb Allah was using their villages as launch points for their rockets, drawing counter-battery fire on the Christians rather than predominately Muslim villages - where, pray tell, was the outcry of the Damascus-based Antiochian Patriarchate against Hizb Allah violating principles of the law of armed conflict and moral decency? If the Church is going to speak out about the impact to civilian populations of indiscriminate targeting on Israel's part, should she not also speak about Hizb's part? Particularly here in the U.S. she CAN speak, where she is not subject to the same scrutiny of internal security forces as one might expect in Syria.

Hmmmm . . . perhaps it was because those villages were Maronite Catholic Christians, not Orthodox . . . I hope not, but if so - sadder and sadder. The Christians of those villages did not hesitate to condemn Hizb Allah's tactics, whilst not condoning Israeli tactics either. Where was the voice of the North American Antiochian Diocese?

I become concerned when I read articles like the one above, from Reuters - if it's defamatory and false, where's the counterpoint from the Antiochian Church (here in the U.S., in Australia, in Syria, in Lebanon?) . . . and what actually does happen to the money that the North American Antiochian Archdiocese sends to the Middle East? I start to want to have transparency about how that money gets spent.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Christianity in Bahrain

Bahrain's population is about 750,000, about the size of an accomodating City and suburbs. Approximately 1/3 of this population, and the bulk of the menial labor force, are expats. Many of these are from India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Yemen, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Morrocco, and similar places. In order to accomodate a wide variety of folks in the workforce, there is basic freedom to practice one's religion in Bahrain.

There are Parsees, Oriental Orthodox, Anglicans, Catholics, Hindi, Buddhists, non-denom. Christians, and probably several other religions quietly being practiced in Bahrain (the State Dept. suggests there are practicing Jews in Bahrain, although if so, this must be carefully guarded, as the once fairly vibrant Jewish community in Bahrain left after the creation of the State of Israel, with a firm understanding that if they left the country, they could not return).

The main thing is not to get carried away about proselytizing, particularly among the Muslim population. The reverse, however, is a duty upon Muslims and as a Christian one must be prepared to hear a great deal about the merits of Islam. I for one, think this isn't so bad, as I would rather hear what mainstream Islam is offering than hear characterizations of it.

If you are also interested to hear what is being taught to inquirers of Islam, please visit the Al-Fateh Da'wah Group's website for a whole host of materials that explains Islamic viewpoint.


Article 2 of the Bahrain Constitution Provides:

"The religion of the State is Islam. The Islamic Shari'a is a principal source for legislation. The official language is Arabic."

Article 5 states:

"a. The family is the basis of society, deriving its strength from religion, morality, and love of the homeland. The law preserves its lawful entity, strengthens its bonds and values, under its aegis extends protection to mothers and children, tends the young and protects them from exploitation and safeguards them against moral, bodily and spiritual neglect . . . ."

Article 18 provides:

"People are equal in human dignity, and citizens are equal before the law in public rights and duties. There shall be no discrimination among them on the basis of sex, origin, language, religion or creed."

Article 22 states:

"Freedom of conscience is absolute. The State guarantees the inviobility of worship, and the freedom to perform religious rites and hold religious parades and meetings in accordance with the customs observed in the country."

Article 23:

"Freedom of opinion and scientific research is guaranteed. Everyone has the right to express his opinion and publish it by word of mouth, in writing or otherwise under the rules and conditions laid down by law, provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed, the unity of the people is not prejudiced, and discord or sectarianism is not aroused."


The U.S. State Department issues International Religious Freedom reports. A Report was filed for 2005 for Bahrain which more aptly describes the current situation that I could and I add specific thoughts to round out 'one man's view'.


Bahrain was, like many of the coastal Gulf states, under Truce or Treaty with Great Britain during the 1800s and throughout much of the 1900s where Britain provided external security while the country was entitled to pursue its own internal governance. Bahrain, like the UAE and Qatar, achieved full independence in 1971 (in fact, Bahrain considered briefly being part of UAE, but ultimately decided to go its own way). I believe that Saudi Arabia was not part of the Trucial States arrangements, and since the House of Saud were enemies of Feisal of Mecca and the Hashemites who sought British support for the Arab Revolt in WWI, it seems more unlikely from that standpoint as well.

As a result, it is unsurprising that there is a significant Anglican parish/diocese presence in Bahrain and the Gulf, and that the Al-Khalifa dynasty has allowed St. Christopher's to be built in Manama. Bahrain continues significant ties with Britain, sending princes to Sandhurst for military academy training and having other economic ties.


Bahrain, from the Mesopotamian era on down to present, has always had significant commerce with the Sub-continent, and the importance of Indian/Pakistani influences is evident in many ways, historic and present. As a result, it is also not surprising to see an allowance made, in these modern times, for the faith practices of those coming from these regions to build buildings, work in hotels, provide domestic services, and conduct all sorts of other hard jobs.


India has had, like the Ethiopian Orthodox, a long Christian history somewhat isolated from the history of the Mediterranean Basin. Church tradition holds that the Apostle, St. Thomas (Believing Thomas!) carried the Gospel to India, and these Christian communities are known as Thomas Christians.

In Bahrain, there is a significant (>2,500 member) Malankara Syrian-Jacobite Orthodox Church - St. Mary's of Bahrain; that is to say, a largely ethnic Indian Oriental Orthodox Church. In the 1960s, this parish was under the Catholikos of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Damascus, and the Catholikos paid a visit to Bahrain in this period.

Due to some issues relating to the proper lines of authority, this parish now falls under the Malankaran Catholikos in India, and there is a small splinter parish, St. Peter's, that continues under the Syrian Catholikos.

As far as I can tell, despite the painful split, these parishes would still consider themselves in communion in the same way that they are connected to the Armenian or Coptic or Ethiopian Orthodox Churches.

St. Mary's is part of a larger diocese which has significant parishes in other GCC nations: UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait. Of course, it is forbidden for any other religion to be practiced in Saudi Arabia, since this country is the keeper of the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. I believe there are 8 parishes in the GCC right now.


I tried to locate St. Mary's in order to attend Holy Qurbana (divine liturgy) but my inability to speak the language, coupled with my phone respondent's minimal English and no Arabic, left me with scant directions. In the process I did by chance find and photograph the facade of St. Peter's Syrian Orthodox Church (the 'other' Oriental Orthodox parish) [I will try to post that picture here once I've scanned it], but as I was skirting a Shi'a area that was forbidden for me to enter, I thought it best to quit driving around as darkness fell trying to get to the Church. St. Mary's holds its Qurbana in the evenings. If I make another trip, I hope to be able to visit these Thomas Christians, and maybe St. Peter's as well.


Strangely, there is no Greek/Antiochian Orthodox parish presence in Bahrain that I know of. I don't know if this is because it would be seen as 'Rum' and out of its element, or if there is some tacit understanding between the Antiochian Patriarch and the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate (and the Malankaran) that, given the close dialog between the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches it makes little sense to create parallel parishes in this region, placing hopes instead on ecclesial reunion. Or perhaps no one has made the effort. Anyone up for missions?

I believe the Roman Catholic Church has made some efforts in the region, and may have a parish.

If the Gospel is to come to the Gulf and be heard, perhaps it will be from the East, for there is less perception of this Malankaran Church being anything 'Western' - an association almost inescapable for 'Rum' Orthodox. That is to say, while one might make efforts from the West, perhaps praying and supporting these existing Oriental Orthodox Churches is a good thing (check with your local Bishop, please!) as the 'taint' of Western secularism might be less associated and less apt to hamper the message.


Bahrain was once a center of Nestorian Christianity, prior to the coming of Islam (which came quite early to Bahrain - the Island being among the first adopters of the new religion exploding out of Arabia). I believe there are records of three different dioceses or Bishops and there is some record of a monastery being located on Muharraq Island, although nothing remains of it now.

One wonders whether strong Nestorian Christology (Mary being Christotokos, but not Theotokos - if I have learned this correctly) made the leap to Islam much easier. The Qur'an teaches that Jesus (Issa) was indeed born of a Virgin, Miriam, by the power of God. But it is heretical to "associate" him with God, and/or suggest that God 'begot' anyone. In other words, once you start to move away from the idea that Jesus was only-begotten before all worlds, and came down from heaven and was born as such . . . you are that much farther on the road to the view of Islam.

Whatever the reasons, that branch of historic Christianity died out in Bahrain long, long ago, and Islam became firmly entrenched.


At night I would listen to the muezzins from more than 5 different mosques across from my place make the call to prayer in succession. Sometimes I would watch the feed from Saudi Arabia in the Great Mosque in Mecca and see the prayers, and the actions of the Muslim believers around the Kaa'ba. In the mornings I saw the hardened stares of men riding in the backs of trucks to their day labor, often for one to two Dinar (Latin: Denarius) per day, much like the laborers in the parable. I often heard the words in my head, spoken to St. Peter: Feed My sheep.

Adsum, Domine

What can I do? How do I authentically show your love for these beautiful people of Bahrain?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bahrain, Islam, and Life in the Gulf - one man's view

I wish to record here over the next few posts some thoughts about my last nearly two months living in the Kingdom of Bahrain, life in a Muslim country, and life in the Persian (or, as is vogue now on the west side, "Arabian") Gulf. Please excuse the stream-of-conciousness form . . . if I have time I will clean things up and try to focus them, but I worry about the perishability of my observations.

It is very difficult for a non-muslim to interpenetrate Islam as a community, a way of life, a basis for government, and a religion sufficient to make any definitive judgments about its character and effects. Much as I could perhaps, as a Protestant (aside: which I once was - now I am spending time in my own spiritual wilderness awaiting the promised land), characterize Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism by observations about external actions and observance of ritual, yet not really grasp the heart of ancient Christianity, I fear to make the same mistake with Islam, and its adherents and subjects.

Moreover, it is manifest that the historical and cultural makeup of Bahrain, when melded with its relationship to Islam, creates a particular millieu that cannot be addressed universally to Islam - certainly not fully to the expression of Islam in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Indonesia, nor even with the expression of Islam within the much stricter, though closely akin society of nearby Saudi Arabia although one could make better generalizations in this arena. I can only speak to what I have observed in Bahrain. With these cautionary concerns in mind, let me begin to share these thoughts.


Bahrain, like the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman) is essentially an Islamic monarchy (with allowances that the UAE are a confederation of Emirs' holdings; Qatar is ruled by a Sheik, etc. - i.e., these are essentially monarchial in type if not actual name). Bahrain is basically quite conservative when compared to the Levantine Arab nations (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon) and Egypt. While Shari'a law does not fully prevail in Bahrain (although Shari'a courts do operate in a sphere of legitimacy), other religious adherents are basically free to practice their faiths (but not prosyletize), and there are nods toward parliamentary processes, the land is firmly under the rule of the Al-Khalifa family, as represented by King Hamad, his son the Crown Prince, and His Highness the Prime Minister, and it is fundamentally an Islamic state.

Firmly - but not unkindly - under the rule of the Al-Khalifa's. I would venture to argue that it is a benevolent rule, all-in-all. Bahrain would be very much worse off without King Hamad.

The Al-Khalifa's share some tribal connections with the Al-Thani family that rules Qatar, and they are staunchly Sunni Muslim. In the late 1700's, the Al-Khalifa's succeeded in pushing the Persians and the Al-Thani out of Bahrain and setting up their own Sheikdom which has lasted to this day (the use of the term 'King' was adopted by the current ruler). 75% of the citizen-population of Bahrain is said to be Shi'a Muslim, and these generally have less power in the political sphere. In the mid-90's, an Iranian sponsored Shi'a coup attempt was put down, but King Hamad launched upon some reforms and measures designed to appease his people and there has been a basic peace since then.

Among the Shi'a are many who are staunch supporters of Hizb Allah. Al-Manar TV, the Hizb Allah station (banned in the U.S. and the station itself branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. and other nations) is a readily available broadcast in Bahrain. Certain villages are heavily marked by Hizb Allah flags, and as a U.S. citizen, it is not advisable to visit (nor are you generally welcome in some of them). One might drive down the road and see a Lexus with a baby sun screen picture of Nasrallah, or other Hizb Allah messages and pictures on the car or in the windows. Nevertheless, it's probably more dangerous to be the wrong sort of person in East L.A. or parts of Washington D.C. than anywhere in Bahrain. Again, the firm but benevolent ruler's hand may be seen in this, as well as the generally ordered behavior of the Islamic society where private theft and murder and the like are sins against community.

Although much is sometimes made of Sunni and Shi'a religous differences, in Bahrain these differences are probably overrated no matter what the political differences between the Sunni political elite and the Shi'a political minority [political, NOT numerical]. When we, as westerners, view the apparent sectarian violence in Iraq, we might want to believe that these conflicts are about religious differences, but I suspect they are more about power and political differences [additionally it becomes hard to sort out simple clan blood feud from other actions in some cases, I suspect].

Bernard Lewis has suggested that the important test of Islam is not so much in a person's orthodoxy but his orthopraxy. With no clearly defined ecclesiatical structure Islam is far more latitudinarian in these matters than Christianity - the real measure is thus loyalty to community as exhibited by orthopraxy, and sometimes sectarian differences become a proxy measure for disloyalty to state (if disloyalty is exhibited) rather than a matter of religious difference per se. I will leave you, my reader, to ponder the implications of this idea when it comes to dhimmi communities and other 'polytheists' living in Islamic countries. My point here is that, in Bahrain, the purely religious aspects of Shi'a/Sunni differences are not a major source of friction.


It is quite easy, theoretically, to be a Muslim - one need only recite the Shihada - the witness - and begin practicing the prayers after the required ablutions. I was plied with materials on a tour of the Al-Fateh Mosque, have a couple of copies of the Qur'an, and have found nowhere in any of these things the suggestion that there is more required to converst than is required of your average non-denom Christian - believe and you are saved, so to speak. In Islam, recognizing that Allah will judge the hearts of men, it is the external act which is important to entering the community, and the external act is quite straightforward. The external adherence to the cultural norm exhibits the loyalty to community and societal structure. One might see here the parallels to the mass conversions to Christianity in the Roman Christian era and the concerns of some that these were insincere - more to exhibit cultural loyalty to the societal norm rather than a true Christian conversion.

Islam is a highly practical religion and, within the sphere of its own logic, provides for fairly stable social structures centered around marriage and children. Prayers are fairly formal - but need not be done at the mosque. As the French convert giving the tour of the (Sunni) mosque informed us, prayers usually only take 10 minutes or less at each time (Friday prayers often have a sermon attached which can make the whole thing last a bit longer).

It was evident in Bahrain that the social cohesion provided by Islam is pervasive and supportive of robust family and social structures. As I ruminated with a friend, it is easy to see why we in the West are found to speak past 'typical' Muslims in the Middle East when talking about women's rights, misogyny, and the like. Such Muslims will look at the West and our pervasive selling of women's and children's sex, and the constant encouragement to tolerate all sorts of licentiousness as the true death knell of society and that ours is the true misogynistic culture. They may have something in this . . . although I have no desire to have my wife take the veil.

And here we come to the crux of the problem. The real war in the heart of Islam is neither a war on terror, nor a war between Christianity and Islam, nor Judaism and Islam, nor even between the West, per se, and Islam. The present war is a war of Islam with secularism. The West succumbed by the 1700s to this war. Sorry my Orthodox friends, and my Catholic and Protestant friends. Societally, the West has fundamentally succumbed. The Far East has succumbed. Islam is still fighting this war within their society. We are on the sidelines of that war, but find ourselves engaged because we are economically tied to the region where the war is being fought.

Unfortunately we can neither abandon the Middle East (if we do, or the oil runs out, shall we morally justify to ourselves creating through neglect another Somalia, or Yemen, or equally impoverished place??); nor can we solve Islam's battle with secularism by intervention.

This battle can be witnessed in simple images: young men in the Gold Souq drinking soda, wearing ball caps reminiscent of rural Idaho or rural North Carolina fashion (hunter camoflage, or simple red and white nylon with the plastic adjustment band in back) whilst wearing the traditional thobe (long white robe) and sandals. Or, the positioning of a Hizb Allah poster on of an expensive Mercedes, decrying the polluting influence of the West.

Will Islam disintegrate into the chaos of secularism? Will it retreat into a mythical past? Will it overcome and redefine the modern life and impose a new social order? I think these are all possible.

Hopefully in the next installment, I will cover some thoughts about Christianity in Bahrain in relation to Islam and life in the Gulf.