Hide your Bible is the rule for tourists in Saudi
Door to religious freedom opens a little in Abu Dhabi, but still shut in Saudi
Neighbouring countries in the Middle East are taking very different approaches to religious freedom – with churches gaining legal status in Abu Dhabi, and open display of the Bible being banned in Saudi Arabia.
In Abu Dhabi, one of the United Arab Emirates, eighteen places of non-Muslim worship had received official legal status. This includes St Andrew’s Anglican Church which, like several of the others, is built on land donated by by Sheikh Zayed, the nation’s Founding Father.
“Today marks a new beginning for the Christian community, in particular …” – Canon Andrew Thompson
“Today marks the coming of age between the church and the United Arab Emirates,” Canon Andrew Thompson, senior Anglican Chaplain of St Andrew’s told The National, the local broadsheet newspaper.
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“The sheikhs [sic] has been generous in giving churches land for the last decade but we have never really had a mechanism to deal with government departments.
“Today marks a new beginning for the Christian community in particular, where we know we have friends who will be responsible for us and will help us with the entire legal framework.” The new licenses cover matters such as land, permission for special events and banking.
St Andrews and the Evangelical Church a few streets away, near the embassy district of Abu Dhabi (capital of the UAE), are very busy places with multiple services in many languages held one after each other on Friday and Sunday.
When I visited St Andrews earlier this year during the Special Olympics, the English language service had a reasonable crowd but the building was going to be packed for the Indian service that followed.
However, proselytizing by non-Muslims and conversion from Islam is prohibited by law in the UAE, according to the 2019 US State Department Report on Religious Freedom.
The UAE has also donated a large block of land to build a Hindu temple to serve the large expatriate Indian community.
“Freedom of religion is not provided for by the law” in Saudi Arabia.
A short distance to the south, in Saudi Arabia, “Christian visitors should be aware that displaying a Bible in public, or taking more than one Bible into the country, could place them at risk of arrest” according to Barnabas Fund.
“The new regulations for tourists state that a Bible may be brought into the country provided it is for personal use only. Bibles must not be displayed in public and anyone found bringing a large number of Bibles will face’ severe penalties’.”
In contrast to the UAE, the 1.2 million Christians living in Saudi Arabia “must meet in private homes to worship, and risk harassment, arrest and deportation if they are caught doing so.”
“Saudi citizens who convert to Christianity face risk of execution by the state for apostasy if their conversion becomes known.”
The US State department notes baldly: “Freedom of religion is not provided for by the law” in Saudi Arabia.