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?


Blogger The Scrivener said...

A great summary. This is really fascinating stuff. I'd love to hear if you're ever able to get in touch with any of the Oriental Orthodox there.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Irene said...

Would that be a problem if i publicly state that I am a Christian?

Are there any Protestant church/group in Bahrain?

Sorry for this stupid question, but i actually may have a job opportunity to go to Bahrain...i am a bit hesitate due to the religion issues.

6:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We are Antiochian Orthodox Christians considering becoming expats in SA. Thank you for posting about Orthodoxy in Bahrain...

3:24 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home