The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is a religious monarchy and claims to be a purely Salafist and theocratic nation. All citizens must be Muslims. Although Christianity once had a significant presence in the Arabian Peninsula, today, the vast majority of Christians in the KSA are expatriate migrants from South and East Asia, especially the Philippines. Human rights advocates claim that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia, and the nation is ranked number two in a recent Pew Research Center Forum that studies state-sponsored religious oppression. Christian services and homes are frequently raided, and Muslim officials consider any religious activity highly suspicious, even offensive.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Saudi Arabia
Egypt, Libya, Israel-Palestine, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkish-Occupied Cyprus
Panel: Findings from the Middle East & North Africa
Moderator: Christian Sahner, University of Cambridge
Speakers: Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma
Elizabeth Prodromou, Tufts University
Mariz Tadros, University of Sussex
Christian Van Gorder, Baylor University
Today, the vast majority of Christians in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) are expatriate migrants from South and East Asia, especially the Philippines. The Catholic Church claims that these expatriates make Saudi Arabia the second largest Catholic nation in the Middle East with an estimated 1.5 million Catholics. Still other claims are that there are as many as 3.5 million Christian workers in the KSA.
History of the Christian Community
Christianity came to the Arabian Peninsula in the first century and had a significant presence there (particularly in Southern Arabia) before the rise of Islam. Most Arab Christians left the peninsula after the rise of Islam, but Christianity returned to the region in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries through the efforts of missions, missionary hospitals, and educational centers.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
The KSA is a religious monarchy—with over 70,000 masjids—and claims to be a purely Salafist and theocratic nation; all citizens must be Muslims. Human rights advocates claim that “freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia,” and the KSA is ranked number two in a recent Pew Research Center Forum that studies state-sponsored religious oppression. But, predictably, Saudis reject such charges.
The expatriate Christian migrants of KSA face many trials. Their services and homes are frequently raided, and Muslim officials consider any religious activity highly suspicious, even offensive. This includes celebrating holidays like Christmas and visibly wearing a cross. In one odd incident, a visiting Colombian soccer player was arrested for his visible religious tattoos, which included the face of Jesus. When one expatriate cursed his Saudi driver using Christ’s name, he was arrested because “the use of the word ‘Christ’ amounted to a public prayer.” While there are a number of functioning Christian churches in the KSA among expatriates, they are not allowed to be visible. Muslims who convert to Christianity face the greatest danger. A number of “secret Christians” of Muslim background meet to study what the Bible says about persecution. In one widely publicized case, a woman was murdered by her family once they discovered she had become a Christian.
Responses to Persecution
Most of the problems Christians face in Saudi Arabia are not new, and, as a result, long-term coping strategies have been tried and tested over the centuries. Instead of trying to adapt to ever-changing pressures, those who decide not to flee have found stability and order in the central conviction that God is in control. Christians in the KSA are not surprised by difficulties and base their response to persecution in a theological framework that regards tribulation as integral to their spiritual health.
Christians’ primary reaction to persecution is to avoid drawing attention to themselves. As such, they practice their faith quietly and often keep it secret. Many even renounce their faith publicly while retaining a private conviction in their hearts. This approach helps Christians avoid a numbing sense of powerlessness by offering a level of disengagement from the unending trauma of repression. Similarly, most Christians avoid proselytism of any kind.
Christians also carefully avoid criticizing the government or expressing hatred toward oppressors, instead living out the message of “rendering unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar.” Because of inherent cultural suspicion, they must prove beyond question that they are not agents of Western political goals. As such, they avoid all political debate that might seem to evoke secularism or to oppose ideas that the government emphatically supports. In order to survive, Christians accept without question the assumption held by their neighbors that “Islam must rule”
Finally, Christians in the KSA also employ strategies of language when dealing with persecution. Since Arabic is the language of the Qur’an, Christians avoid offending Muslims by conducting services exclusively in languages other than Arabic. Most Christians in the KSA are non-native anyway, but the few indigenous Arab Christians use only “Modern Standard Arabic” and rarely formal “Qur’anic Arabic” in their devotions.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Christian Van Gorder and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.