The news of the opening of an archaeological site of a 7th century Christian Monastery in the island of Sir Bani Yas, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has recently caught my attention for two reasons. The first is the fact that Christianity had a presence in the gulf region way before Islam came in the picture. Secondly the news came in a time when Christians in Egypt have been struggling to have the right to build new churches, while the above project was fully funded by the UAE government.
In the eastern side of the 78 square-Kilometer Island of Sir Bani Yas, a Christian monastery was unearthed by British Archeologists. From the Archeological finds it has been reported that it was a multi-building compound that housed 30-40 monks. Dr Elders, the Archaeological Director of the project further adds “We think quite a lot of visitors came to the monastery.” The building complex comprises of monk cells, kitchen, animal pens, and a church in the middle of the complex.
Excavation work has started in the sight since 1990s at the request of Sheikh Zayed the founder of the UAE. In December 2010 Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed the crown prince of Abu Dhabi has ordered the continuation of the excavation work on the site and its opening of the site for public viewing.
Christianity in the gulf has started in the day of Pentecost, as we read that among those who were present were the Arabs (Act 2:5-11), whom when they heard the words of St Peter “they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” (Act 2:37). “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” (Act 2:41). We then know from St Paul that after his conversion he visited Arabia (Gal 1:17). Tradition also has it that later on St Bartholomew went to breach Christianity in the region.
By the mid-third century a Christian bishopric was established in the Bahrain Islands. We also know from records of the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) that Arab bishops were present. After the condemnation of Nestorius in the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) the Assyrian Church, or the Nestorian Church of the East, sent missionaries from their center at Edessa (in modern day Iraq) all the way down to India through the trade routes that were used at that time. This was the time when the recently excavated monastery in the island of Sir Bani Yas was founded.
After the rise of Islam in the 7th century many of these Christian communities gradually diminished. There are no Records of Bishops attending the Assyrian Church’s Synod after (676 A.D.) yet there are indications that Christianity persisted in the region until the late 9th century.
Today the Gulf region has millions of Christian immigrants from all over the world (Coptic, Greek, Syrian, and Indian). This came as a result of the rapid economic development of the 70s and 80s after the discovery of Oil in the region. While a Muslim government, Christians in the region freely practice their faith without any hassle from the authorities and sometime in church building that are funded by members of the royal family.