PICTURE EDITION 37: THE CHURCH IN OMAN: GROWING AMONG EXPATS, INVISIBLE AMONG LOCALS

1. History

The Sultanate of Oman occupies the eastern horn of the Arabian Peninsula to the east of Saudi Arabia. Its location close to the cradle of civilization speaks of a deep history. Its mountains were once a source of frankincense and its proximity to India led to much exchange with South Asia and China. Being crucial to east-west trade, it was part of several empires before the Persians took control and used it as a buffer against Rome-India trade and associated naval ambitions. One of many conquerors, Alexander the Great sent ships here to examine the region. Arabs migrated to the region in large numbers during the Persian era.

Christianity came here early and took root in Oman a few centuries after Christ. Christianity arrived in the gulf from a number of directions: from Christian tribes in the Arabian Desert; from Ethiopian Christians to the south; and from Persia and Iraq, where Christian communities flourished under Persian rule. Christianity and Judaism were adopted by many Arabs. However, Christianity dwindled after Islam arrived. This was sadly due to the highly religious nature of Christianity by this time. Vibrant New Testament faith was no longer the norm in the centuries just before Islam emerged. How different would the history of the Middle East be if the reverse was the case!

The Portugese came in 1508 and in the centuries after the arrival of the Europeans Oman grew in stature as an ally in their global trade ambitions. Oman’s political power peaked in the 1850’s when it occupied a vast coastal strip of Arabia and Africa, but much of its wealth was built on the back of the African slave trade. In fact Oman only banned slavery in 1970! From the 1850’s onwards colonial powers, especially Britain, wrestled control over Oman’s external affairs. In 1951 Britain recognised Oman as a separate sovereign state.

2. Today

Oman is an absolute monarchy, even though there is an assembly and some voting rights. After deposing his father in 1970, Sultan Qaboos opened up the country, embarked on economic reforms, and followed a policy of modernisation marked by increased spending on health, education and welfare. Despite some liberalisation of the political landscape, the Sultan still faces much opposition from the people he rules. Interestingly, radical Islamists are routinely incarcerated but many personal freedoms for foreigners are tolerated.

A significant factor to Oman’s regional and political separation from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates is its official belief which is a form of Islam distinct from the Sunni and Shi’a branches. The Ibadi movement has several teachings and practices that differ from those two larger sects of Islam. Probably the main religious difference however, is the Ibadis’ self-imposed disassociation from non-believers, which makes Christian evangelism all the more difficult.

Economically, Oman is a reasonably wealthy country, with an income 50% of the USA. Most of this wealth comes from oil related exports. There is a large expatriate community present to run this industry and many others. Native Omani’s constitute slightly less than half the population, with other Arabs, Iranians and South Asians making up the numbers. Muslims therefore only make up 88% of the population, with Sikhs at 6%, Hindus at 4%, Christians at 3% and Buddhism at 4%. Expatriates are allowed to worship freely but not to convert Muslims.

3. True Christianity

Modern true Christianity is believed to have first entered Oman in 1889–1890 with the arrival of James Cantine and Samuel Zwemer who opened hospitals in this backward part of the world. With the arrival of large number of expatriate workers from Europe when oil was discovered and from South Asia later on, the church in Oman was planted and is now growing strongly. The Catholic Church is the dominant Christian presence, but is actually now outnumbered by the different evangelical groups. These smaller churches are doing a fantastic job at winning their fellow expatriate workers and the true church is growing at around 6% a year. This robust growth aligns with church growth currently occurring in both India and Pakistan, home of many of the expats.

Reaching the Muslim community is another story altogether. Evangelism is banned and sadly  I could find little information on Muslim background believers in Oman. The number of Christians from a Muslim background is believed to be tiny but growing despite fierce persecution and pressure from both government and their community. Omani society shuns those who leave Islam, and those who convert from a Muslim background risk legal discrimination, as well as losing family, house and job. So at this stage nobody really knows if MBB believers are expanding the Kingdom or holding on in isolation. This alone makes Oman a reason for concerted prayer.

4. Prayer Points

For continued growth of the Expatriate evangelical church among the 1 million foreign workers

For a sovereign move of the Holy Spirit: for signs, wonders, dreams and visions to come to the Islamic community

For divine appointments for the few MB believers who are brave enough to share their faith

For viral networks of whole Muslim families coming to faith

For Iranian expatriate workers who are Christian to penetrate the Omani Muslim community

For the Mahra and Jibbali nomads. There are no known believers among them.

For a change in government policy toward Christianity, a softening of the hardness

For more and more Muslims to start questioning their faith

For internet evangelists such as Isiq Abla to reach more and more Islamic women

For SAT-7 and Isaac TV satellite programs to reach the unreached (I will be appearing on Isaac TV later this year as they are hosting our Pakistan trip in two weeks!)

For Omanis who study abroad to come to faith.

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