The Persian Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi recently made history. On the tiny island of Sir Bani Yas, archaeologists discovered the remains of a Christian monÂastic complex dating from around 600. After some resÂtoration, authorities opened the place to the public as a tourist attraction and heritage site.
This decision may not sound surprising, but it stands in stark contrast to the emÂbarrassment and contempt with which other nations in the region””above all, Saudi Arabia””treat their own pre-Islamic heritage. And that same relative tolerance also applies to the practice of faith today in the Gulf states. If the smaller Gulf nations do not practice freedom of religion in anything like the Western sense, Christianity has nevertheless secured a surprisingly strong foothold in these coastal states.
When the monastery of Sir Bani Yas was built, ChrisÂtianity had a strong presence throughout eastern and southern Arabia, mainly through the (“Nestorian”) Church of the East. No later than the fifth century, a diocese covered the lands that we would today call Oman and the United Arab EmiÂrates (UAE), and BahÂrain had a major church. In MuÂhamÂmad’s time, five sees covered the Gulf’s western shores. By the end of the first millennium, that Christian history had come to an end, leaving the churches in ruins.