This week’s visit by Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will be his first to the Arabian Peninsula and the first of its kind to the Islamic World. While the pope has previously travelled to Muslim-majority countries, this will be the first time the head of the Catholic Church will conduct what is expected to be the largest ever open-air mass in what Muslims consider to be the most religiously significant part of the Islamic world. This in a country that, like neighboring Saudi Arabia, is governed by Sharia law. The timing of the visit coincides with a period of history where radical Islamist groups have stepped up their attacks on Christians, killing them or forcing them to flee.
Today, nearly all of the UAE’s one million Christians are expatriates. But Christianity is not new to the country or the Arabian Peninsula.
Christians were present in the Hejaz, the western region of modern-day Saudi Arabia, at the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Then, a quarter of a century ago, archaeologists discovered a 1,400-year-old monastery on the island of Sir Bani Yas, which is part of present-day Abu Dhabi. Scholars believe the monastery was built around 600BC by monks linked to the Church of the East, which originated in neighboring Iraq. Evidence suggests that Christians remained at this site well into the Islamic period under the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750BC). During this period, the Umayyads allowed Christians to construct and maintain churches. The Umayyad caliphs were also known to take Christian wives.