August 7, 2008 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 460

Debate on Churches in Gulf States

August 7, 2008 | By E. B. Picali*
Qatar, The Gulf | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 460


In March 2008, the first Catholic church in Qatar – Our Lady of the Rosary – was inaugurated in the capital, Doha. Built on land donated by the Qatari Emir, it is meant to serve some 100,000 Catholics living in Qatar, nearly all of them foreign workers, who until then were forced to hold services in schools and private homes. Our Lady of the Rosary, which is affiliated with a mother church in Abu Dhabi, is one of five churches of various denominations whose construction was recently authorized by the Qatari government. The churches are prohibited from conducting missionary activity and from displaying external religious symbols.

In approving the construction of these churches, Qatar has joined other Gulf states – including Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, the UAE and Oman – which allow churches to operate within their borders.

The first church in the Gulf region was built in Bahrain, which today has some 30 churches, serving about 30,000 Christian citizens and many foreigners. Kuwait has some 10 churches, serving about 200 citizens and 400,000 foreigners. Three years ago, Kuwait allotted two large plots of land for the construction of additional churches, but objections by Islamists in the parliament and municipal authorities have delayed the implementation of the plans. [1]

Saudi Arabia thus remains the only Gulf state that still bans the construction of non-Muslim houses of worship, despite pressure by the Vatican. According to a Vatican representative in the Gulf, three to four million Christians live in Saudi Arabia; however, the Saudis deny these figures.[2]

Qatar's move has rekindled the debate over the permissibility of churches in the Arabian Peninsula. Following is a review of the main arguments in the debate.

Who Is Authorized to Approve Construction of Churches?

Some argued that the decision on whether churches are permissible in the Arabian Peninsula can only be made by the religious establishment, while others argued that it is within the jurisdiction of the ruler. Among the proponents of the latter view was Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, head of the International Association of Muslim Scholars, who currently resides in Qatar and is a prominent supporter of that country's decision to allow churches to be built. Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi recently issued a fatwa permitting the construction of churches in Islamic countries, and even permitting Muslims to participate in that construction. He argued that, from a religious point of view, the issue of churches falls under the Islamic principle of "the general good" (maslaha), which is the exclusive responsibility of the ruler:

"Constructing a church in Muslim countries... for Christian citizens and for others... whom the Muslim scholars have designated as dhimmis is not a sin, as long as they have a real need [for a church]... and have obtained the ruler's permission... This is also true for non-Muslims who are not citizens but who have entered the Muslim countries [legally]...

"[The issue of churches] has to do with mutual relations [between countries]. [If the Christians] allow Muslims to build mosques in their countries and to perform their rituals there, [the Muslims should reciprocate]. In my opinion, [the issue of] allowing Christians to build a church in Qatar falls under this category. Based on the Islamic principles in matters of state, [which come to] protect the public interest while preserving the goals of the shari'a, [authorizing churches] is the prerogative of the ruler... [Moreover,] Muslims may participate in the construction [of the churches]."[3]

Opponents of this view argued that the construction of churches in Muslim countries had nothing to do with public interest, and thus did not fall under the jurisdiction of the ruler. Saudi Sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman bin Nasser Al-Barrak, formerly a lecturer at Imam Muhammad bin Sa'ud University in Riyadh, stated in a fatwa that "it is not permissible to allow churches in Muslim countries in order for the [Muslims] to be able to build mosques in [Christian] countries..."[4] Saudi sheikh Dr. Sa'ud bin 'Abdullah Al-Fanisan, former dean of Shari'a Studies at the same university, stated in an interview that "no political regime – be it a Caliphate representing all Muslims, or a local regime – may change the principle [banning the construction of churches], just as it may not change the boundaries of the haram [the sacred region in Mecca] or make [other forbidden] changes in the Arabian Peninsula."[5]

Another point of debate was why non-Muslims had been expelled from the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century.[6] Some stated that the expulsion was motivated by religious principles, and was therefore a matter for the religious clerics. Others said that the expulsion was for security considerations, placing it under the jurisdiction of the political ruler – as is the issue of building churches today.

The latter view was supported by Qatari reformist Dr. 'Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, former dean of law and shari'a at the University of Qatar,[7] as well as by Saudi Shura Council Member and Law Ministry advisor Sheikh 'Abd Al-Muhsin bin Nasser Aal 'Obikan. In an article in the Saudi weekly Rayat Al-Tawhid, 'Obikan wrote: "The order [to expel the non-Muslims] came from the ruler. Proof of this is [the fact that the first Caliph] Abu Bakr did not expel the Jews, and the companions of the Prophet did not ask him to. This [implies] that citizens have no right to interfere in affairs under the ruler's authority... The expulsion depends on what is considered to be the general good... as stated by [prominent medieval Muslim scholar] Ibn Taymiya. This is supported by [the fact that the Prophet] Muhammad [himself] did not expel [the Jews]..."[8]

Sheikh Al-Fanisan, on the other hand, stated that the expulsion of non-Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula was a religious duty, and explained that it was only practical considerations that prevented the first Caliph from expelling them: "The reason for the delay in their expulsion had to do with the interests of the people in the Islamic state – they were needed as agricultural [workers] and providers of [other] services. During his life, the Prophet stressed the need to expel the polytheists from the Arabian Peninsula, and he reiterated this [again] before his death."[9]

Hadith: No Religion But Islam May Reside in the Arabian Peninsula

Another issue evoked in the debate is a hadith according to which no religion but Islam may reside in the Arabian Peninsula. Sheikh Al-Barrak wrote in a recent fatwa: "The saddening fact is that some Muslims agreed to the request of the infidels to build churches in certain Islamic countries within the Arabia Peninsula... But the hadith says: '...The religion of the Jews and Christians may not reside alongside that of the Muslims..."[10]

This prohibition was invoked and elaborated on in a fatwa issued several years ago by a group of prominent Saudi scholars, including Saudi Mufti Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz bin 'Abdallah bin Muhammad Aal Al-Sheikh, head of the Council of Senior Clerics in Saudi Arabia; as well as Sheikh 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Ghudian and Sheikh Salah bin Fawzan Al-Fawzan, both of them members of the Council of Senior Clerics and of the Permanent Council for Scientific Research and Legal Opinions. The fatwa said: "The Arabian Peninsula is an Islamic haram [sacred region restricted to Muslims]. An infidel must not be given religious or political permission to infiltrate it, to become a citizen or to buy real estate there – let alone build a Christian church."[11]

Another matter of debate was the boundaries of Jazirat Al-Arab (the Arabian Peninsula as mentioned in Muslim sources). Sheikh Al-Barrak and Sheikh Al-Fanistan stated that this region includes all the modern Gulf states – from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, and from the Arab Sea to the south of modern Iraq. In contrast, Dr. Al-Ansari, Sheikh 'Obikan and Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi stated that Jazirat Al-Arab included only the Hijaz, Mecca and Medina. 'Obikan wrote: "The region from which Muhammad ordered to expel the polytheists is the region of Mecca and Medina, because they are sacred..."[12]

Dr. Al-Ansari argued in a similar vein: "The principle [stating that] no other faith may reside alongside Islam in the Arabian Peninsula [is not relevant to the issue of building] churches in Qatar, since the religious scholars believe that it refers only to the Hijaz, Mecca and Medina... This is evident from the fact that [non-Muslim] houses of worship continued to exist in Yemen, Najran and Tayma [during the Prophet's life and in later periods, and from the fact that] non-Muslim monotheistic religions continued to reside in the Arabian Peninsula throughout Muslim history."[13]

Dr. Al-Ansari went even further, stating that the only valid sources for religious rulings are the Koran and the Sunna, whereas fatwas are human rulings reflecting the era and circumstances in which they are issued, and therefore are not always free from error. He also rejected the concept of ijma' (wide agreement of religious scholars on a certain issue), arguing that it was unrealistic.

Dr. Al-Ansari wrote: "We respect the fatwas that ban the building of churches [in the Arabian Peninsula], but they stem from the internalization and imitation of ancient religious [rulings], [and these] were based on the political, social and security circumstances of Arab societies during the time they were issued... These religious considerations were [presented by] human beings, and are not sacred or free from error. They must be subjected to critical examination… They are not based… upon solid religious texts… We must rely [only] on the texts of the Koran and the Sunna, and it is [only] these texts that are always binding… [As for the concept of] ijma', historical facts do not support it."[14]

Based on his opinion that the Koran and Sunna are the only valid sources for religious rulings, Dr. Al-Ansari also rejected the Islamic view that divides the Muslim world into two parts: Dar Al-Islam, regions under the Muslim rule – in which dhimmis have some freedom of worship under the Covenant of 'Omar – and Dar Al-Harb, areas that are not under the Muslim rule, and it is a religious duty to conquer them by means of jihad. He also rejects the division of Dar Al-Islam into three sub-categories, (regions that were obtained through a peace agreement with non-Muslims, in which non-Muslim places of worship are allowed; regions that were obtained in a war with non-Muslims; and regions that the Muslims have built – in the latter two sub-categories, it is forbidden to build non-Muslim places of worship.) Al-Ansari explains: "The division between Dar Al-Islam and Dar Al-Harb is an administrative division, not a religious one… and has no basis in the shari'a, since it is not found in the Koran or the Sunna. Nor is there anything in the actions of the Prophet or his companions that supports it. These divisions were mandated by political and security considerations alone, and should not be treated as binding shari'a rulings."[15]

The Status of Dhimmis

The question of the status of dhimmis – namely, whether or not they are infidels – also came up in the debate. Sheikh Al-Barrak explicitly stated in his fatwa that today's Jews and Christians were not dhimmis but infidels, and therefore should be subjected to the shari'a rules pertaining to infidels. That is, they should be given an opportunity to convert to Islam, and if they refused, they must be executed. He wrote: "The contemporary Jews and Christians are infidels… Anyone who does not believe that they are infidels, and that their religion is false, is [himself] an infidel… because anyone who fails to follow the Prophet and to believe in him is not a Muslim but an infidel, and must be treated according to the Muslim rules regarding infidels. Mosques are houses of God, where we worship Him and thank Him, whereas churches are the temples of infidels…who worship Jesus and his mother as though they were gods…"[16]

Dr. Al-Ansari, on the other hand, argued forcefully for the opposite view, namely that dhimmis were not infidels. He stated that Islam had always recognized the legitimacy of their religions, and had even seen it as its duty to protect them, though it was fully aware of the nature of their faith and rituals. He added that Islam, as a matter of principle, regarded the Jews and Christians as human beings, and as such granted them every right and freedom: "…It must be stressed that the [Koran and Sunna] impose no limitations whatsoever on the right of non-Muslims to perform their rituals… The argument that churches are places of worship for infidels and polytheists cannot justify lack of reciprocity [in relations between countries]. Neither can it be a reason to deny [Christians] the right to build churches. Islam, from its very beginning, recognized the legitimacy of other [faiths] and their right to exist, [based on the verse] 'You shall have your religion and I shall have my religion [Koran 109:6].' The Prophet and his companions guaranteed the right [of non-Muslims] to hold their rituals, and committed to protect [the non-Muslims] and their houses of worship, even though they were fully aware of the nature of the rituals performed there. They did not characterize them as infidel temples that are not entitled to protection. [Caliph] 'Omar [bin Al-Khattab] removed the earth that was covering the Jewish temple [on Temple Mount] so that the Jews could worship there, and did not call it a place of heresy.

"In our opinion, recognizing the other and his right to worship does not mean accepting his religion as true. This recognition rests on an important principle of Islam, namely that as human beings, [non-Muslims] are entitled to every right and freedom, [including] honor, protection and [freedom of] belief and worship. It is not for us to hold them to account [for what they believe]; we are not their guardians. Allah alone judges on Judgment day, and nowhere in our history does it say that the Muslims forbade [the non-Muslims to worship] on the grounds that churches are places of worship for infidels...

"As for the [claim that only] mosques are the home of the [true] faith and religion – it is made from the point of view of the Muslims, and [the non-Muslims] regard their own temples as such. All people naturally believe that their religion is the true one. But this belief is no excuse to deny the other his rights, including [his right] to protection... Therefore, from [every] perspective – [that of] Islam, common sense, the [Qatari] constitution and human rights – it is inconceivable to ban the building of churches on the grounds that they encourage heresy and [constitute] an insult to Muslims..."

Dr. Al-Ansari argued that this view applies not only to Judaism and Christianity but to all religions, saying: "Freedom of belief is an undeniable truth, and it applies not only to the revealed religions [i.e. Judaism and Christianity]. For the past thousand years, [it has also applied] to the Mazdians, the Sabians, the Zoroastrians and the Buddhists. [The right] to build temples and to worship are entailed by this [principle of] freedom of belief."[17]

Citizen vs Resident Status

In addition to religious arguments, the sides also advanced arguments of a different sort. Former Qatari justice minister Najib Muhammad Al-Nu'aimi objected to the construction of churches on social and constitutional grounds. He wrote: "According to its constitution, Qatar is an Islamic state and not a secular one. Therefore, the decision to allow churches should be approved by referendum, in order to ensure that it is accepted by society as a whole.[18] Al-Nu'aimi likened Qatar to the Vatican, stating that just as the Vatican does not allow the building of mosques within its boundaries, Qatar should not allow churches.[19] On another occasion, he argued: "This issue pertains to foreigners who are residing temporarily [in Qatar]. So why should we give them land [to build churches]?"[20] A similar claim was made by Saudi Shura Council member Dr. 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Thunian, who argued: "The Saudis are all Muslims, not Christians. Therefore, there can be no need [for a church], since [the Christians] in Saudi Arabia are guests, living in the country [on a temporary basis]. Their existence there is not the point. [The point is] that they come and go, like the members of other [non-Muslim] religions."[21]

In response to Al-Nu'aimi's argument about the Vatican, Dr. Al-Ansari replied: "Qatar is not a religious state. Its constitution stipulates that Islam is [only] a source for legislation... [Hence,] it cannot be compared with the Vatican, which is a religious state..."[22] Dr. Al-Ansari also wrote: "Article 50 of the Qatari constitution says: 'Freedom of worship is granted to all.'[23] Regarding the referendum, he stated that there were no religious, constitutional, or historical grounds for holding a referendum on such a matter: "There is no [need] to hold a referendum on matters that are under the jurisdiction of the ruler. [In fact,] this contravenes the Qatari constitution, as well as [our] historical record of 1,400 years and the shari'a. Moreover, rights and freedoms are not matters for a referendum..."[24]

Regarding the status of the Christians living in the Gulf states, Dr. Al-Ansari stated that Muslims living in the West are granted rights based on principles of human rights rather than citizen rights: "In permitting Muslims to [build] mosques, the West is motivated by the general human rights conventions, not by considerations of citizen rights. The West believes in the right of all [people] – citizens and non-citizens alike – to build houses of worship. Moreover – the Western states [even] subsidize these houses of worship."[25]

Saudi Academic: When The Vatican Acknowledges Muhammad, We Can Talk of Building Churches in Saudi Arabia

Dr. Anwar 'Ishqi, head of the Saudi Center for Middle East Strategic Studies, responded to the Vatican's request to permit the building of a church in Saudi Arabia. 'Ishqi, who has participated in several Muslim–Christian dialogue conferences, said: "We [Muslims] acknowledge the Christian faith. [We acknowledge] Jesus, Moses, and all the other prophets. If and when the Pope and all the Christian announce that they acknowledge the Prophet Muhammad, we shall be willing to talk about [permitting] churches in Saudi Arabia."[26]

*E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[1]For additional information on churches in the Gulf states, see a March 14, 2008 AFP report on

[2], March 19, 2008.

[3], May 19, 2008.

[4], May 17, 2008.

[5] April 14, 2008.

[6] According to a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad ordered the expulsion of all "polytheists" from the Arabian Peninsula. The second Caliph, 'Omar bin Al-Khattab, later expelled the Christians and Jews from all parts of the Peninsula except Yemen.

[7] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), January 29, 2008.


[9], April 14, 2008.

[10], May 17, 2008.

[11], April 14, 2008.


[13] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), January 29, 2008.

[14] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), February 4, 2008.

[15] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), February 4, 2008.

[16], May 17, 2008.

[17] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), February 5, 2008.

[18], February 6, 2008.

[19] Al-Ittihad (UAE), March 19, 2008.

[20], October 25, 2005.

[21], March 19, 2008.

[22] Al-Ittihad (UAE), March 19, 2008.

[23] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), February 18, 2008.

[24] Al-Ittihad (UAE), March 19, 2008.

[25] Al-Ittihad (UAE), March 19, 2008.

[26], March 19, 2008.

Share this Report: