The tiny island country of Bahrain, just off the Arabian coast in the Persian Gulf, has been a strategic asset for many empires right through history. While under Persian rule in the 4th Century, many Christians arrived in the area around modern Bahrain after being pushed out of Iraq. The Persians at first persecuted these Christians but then adopted a policy of toleration later that century because the numbers of Christians kept growing. By the beginning of the fourth Century we have records of Christians inhabiting many places in the Persian Gulf and in Eastern Arabia. Monasteries and churches were common and there was a strong Christian literary output, mainly in Aramaic, the lingua-franca of the Middle East at that time as Arabic did not yet exist.
With the arrival of the Arab empire and its evolution from Syriac Christianity to Islam between 630 and 800 AD, most pagans in the region converted. However most of the Jews, Christians and Persian Zoroastrians elected to pay an onerous tax in order to keep their faith. It was not until around 1000 AD that Christianity largely, and sadly, died out in the region around Bahrain.
However, Persian rather than Arab influence remained strong on the island, and the population became mainly Shia Muslim, as in Iran today. This would lead to much political conflict with the Sunni Muslims of nearby Arabia throughout history, conflict which continues simmering even today.
In the late 18th Century the British took control of Bahrain and turned it into a cosmopolitan international trading centre full of merchants from all over the Persian Gulf and South Asia. Each brought their food, culture and religion, and that’s when Christianity first came back. In 1932 oil was discovered and this turbocharged Bahrain’s economic development, bringing in Christian expats from many western countries who remain today.
In 1971 the British left and Bahrain became an independent country with the majority Shia being uncomfortably ruled by a minority Sunni monarch. In 2001 Bahrain became a constitutional monarchy with a parliament that allowed minority religions and women to participate. But this wasn’t enough for the Shia majority and in 2011 the Arab Spring came to Bahrain and stirred up massive protests against the Sunni government. There was a brutal crackdown.
Oil supplies 50% of all revenues and the economy is now suffering badly because of low oil prices. The country is being financially propped up by nearby Sunni Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to keep the king in power and the Shiites placated.
The nation now consists of about half Bahraini people and half expatriate workers. The mix is as follows: Bahraini 46%, Asian 45.5%, other Arab 4.7%, African 1.6%, European 1%. Most expatriate Christians come from the South Indian guest worker community. although there are now believed to be some secret believers inside the large Iranian expatriate community. Western churches and denominations are permitted in supervised areas. Evangelism to Arabs is forbidden.
3. Evangelism Highlights
There are basically four parts to the body of Christ in Bahrain and communication between them is very limited. There is the Western expatriate Christian community, the large South Indian guest worker house church community, the 1,600 strong native Bahraini Orthodox Christian community and the tiny but heavily persecuted Muslim background believer (MBB) underground church.
Although tolerant of expatriate workers following their own faith, there are approximately 188,000 expatriate Christians in total but only 19 expatriate church buildings, so many groups must share them. Bahrain takes a very hard-line approach to any Muslim citizen who converts. Persecution is severe. In 2010 Operation World estimated there were about 1,650 Muslim Background Believers now in the country, today this figure would be higher. These people face severe persecution and social disadvantage. They must worship in secret. Bahrain needs a spiritual breakthrough!
There has been a well-respected Christian hospital in Bahrain since 1903, and this gives Christianity a good reputation. The former ambassador to England, Alees Samaan, is a Christian (and a woman!).
4. Prayer Points
Pray for Iranian evangelists among the expatriate workers as these have less trouble reaching the locals.
Pray for the many online avenues by which Muslims can now secretly search for a new faith. Chat rooms are especially popular.
Pray for those who’ve been rejected by their families for their faith. Pray that they will find a bigger family in God.
Pray for fathers to come to Christ, they will then win their family and family is the basic church building block in the Middle East.
Pray for all Christians to have the courage and boldness to reach out to Muslims.
Pray for the Christian satellite TV stations that reach many homes.
Pray for the 30,000 or so expatriate evangelical Christians who can influence many through their prayer and actions.