Most people associate Arabia with Islamic fundamentalism and super-modern cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. It may come as a surprise, then, that the Arabian Peninsular is home to at least 2 million Catholics, who are almost entirely composed of expatriate workers.
It is easy to forget that Christianity initially flourished in the Arabian Peninsula. According to tradition, St Bartholomew preached the Gospel in what is now Yemen on his way to India, and three bishops of the nomadic Arabs attended the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Little survived the rise of Islam, although when Marco Polo visited the islands of Socotra, off the southern Arabian coast, he found that ‘the inhabitants are baptized Christians and have an archbishop.’
Today the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia cares for the faithful in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen. This large area includes just 16 parishes and 55 priests. Relative religious freedom exists within a well-defined framework and most church activities take place within the parish compound, normally situated on the outskirts of a major city or town. The notable exception is the ‘Forbidden Kingdom’ of Saudi Arabia, where all religions other than Islam are prohibited and no official Church activity is allowed.