Hidden Prayer in Yemen: Islam and the problem of religious intolerance
Christians in Sanaa, the capital city in Yemen, cannot pray in church. They must congregate in secret in their homes, and non-Christian Yemenis are monitored to ensure that they do not attend. During a recent visit to the country, I attended many of these clandestine services and watched with admiration as both foreigners and local Yemenis sought ways to practice their faith in a hostile environment.
Unfortunately, the plight of Christians in Yemen is not unique. In Iraq, Saudia Arabia and other countries in the Muslim world, freedom of worship is severely restricted, and the number of Christians has dwindled. The values of pluralism and diversity are dismissed in favor of a strict adherence to the rule of the Koran, which sees any visible Christian presence as an attempt at evangelization. Yemen is emblematic of an Islamic culture that fails to see the spiritual growth that can come from encounters with people of other faiths.
It was not always this way. One can still find traces of ancient Christian worship in Sanaa, at a site known as the Qalis. Finding it takes work. Walk through the alleys of Sanaa’s Souq al-Milh (Salt Market) until you reach the eastern edge of the walled Old City. You will have to ask as you go for the Qalis: no placards or street signs identify the site. But 15 centuries ago it was something splendid. King Abrahah, a Christian from Ethiopia, ordered a church for pilgrims built in Sanaa within sight of the desert hills of Mount Nuqum. The building site was linked to a Christian Arabian legend. Locals believe that Jesus paused in Sanaa to pray during his journey in the wilderness prior to his public ministry.
The Qalis was built to dazzle. The 13th-century Muslim geographer Abd Allah Yaqut described the church as it looked in Abrahah’s time: pulpits of ivory and ebony, crosses of silver and gold, walls of stone taken from the palace of Bilqees, queen of Sheba. Abrahah hoped the Qalis would rival Mecca’s Kaaba shrine as a venue for pilgrims. But with Islam’s triumph the church was looted, its pillars plundered to build Sanaa’s Great Mosque. According to Yaqut, the wasteland around the deserted Qalis became the lair of lions, snakes and demonic jinns.
What is left is marked by a seven-foot-high circular wall that segregates the site from modern Sanaa. Climb this wall and you will gaze down into a pit that plunges 20 feet below street level. Today it is a garbage dump, its surface littered with tires and plastic bottles.
Praying in Secret
Christian worship persists in 21st-century Yemen in the form of secret house-church gatherings. Typically these are held on Friday mornings, the Muslim day of congregational prayer, when everyone is free from work. The services take place discreetly in rooms and private homes. The gatherings I attended were small—sometimes as few as three or four persons, never more than 25. What they lacked in number they made up for in fervor. The services featured singing, clapping, cries of petition and prayers of thanksgiving for the companionship of Jesus. “Here, in a Muslim country, we don’t take our Christianity for granted,” one participant said. “Here, with these small communities meeting ‘underground,’ the original spirit of Christianity can be revived.”
The worshippers were both foreigners and long-term residents—nurses, teachers and physicians; aid workers engaged in projects involving water management, literacy or public health. Some came from Europe or America, but most were from Nigeria, the Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, India or East Africa. Some were charismatics, others evangelicals and fundamentalists of various denominations—very much a reflection, I thought, of the dynamic and expanding church worldwide.
Given this variety, some tension was inevitable. When I identified myself as a Catholic at one service, a self-described “born-again believer” replied that she used to be Catholic but now was a true Christian. Our host immediately reminded everyone that we should focus on our shared devotion to Christ.
Such a focus is appropriate, given the challenges facing Christians in Yemen. The government does not prohibit foreigners from private Christian worship, but authorities are intent on discouraging conversion from Islam. I heard reports of young Muslim men, apparently commissioned by the Yemeni government, posing as potential converts in an attempt to lure Christian foreigners into proselytizing. In one recent case, a Christian Ethiopian working in Sanaa as a day laborer gave an Arabic text of the New Testament to a Yemeni who feigned interest in the faith. The result: three months in jail followed by deportation.
Consequences can be far harsher for Yemenis who genuinely desire to convert. In a culture where religious identity is equated with loyalty to family, clan and nation, conversion from Islam is seen as treason, a threat to Yemen’s communal identity—hence what one Muslim cleric described to me as al-khawf min al-tansir, “the fear of Christianization.” (Tansir comes from the root nasrani, “Nazarene.”) Muslims caught flirting with the “Nazarene” faith are routinely arrested, imprisoned and made to reaffirm their allegiance to Islam. Others suffer violence at the hands of their own families—“the only way,” as one American resident told me, “in an honor/shame society for a father to erase the stain of shameful behavior on the part of his children.”
Would-be Christians are not the only Yemenis to suffer religious persecution. For thousands of years Yemen was home to a sizable Jewish community. With the creation of Israel in 1948, however, anti-Jewish riots erupted throughout the Arab world, and most of Yemen’s Jews fled to the newly established Jewish state. Now only a handful of Jewish families remain, and many of them have had to leave their villages and take refuge in Sanaa in the wake of death threats by local militant Muslim groups that dominate rural areas. A notorious recent case involved Moshe Yaish Youssef Nahari, a resident of Raydah, a village in northern Yemen. Confronted on the street by an armed individual who demanded he embrace Islam, Nahari refused and was murdered on the spot.
Violent hostility to religious minorities is a problem in other Islamic countries as well. In Iraq in recent years, terrorists have used death threats against indigenous Christians in Mosul and elsewhere in northern Iraq to extort payment of what is known as the jizyah. This is the discriminatory tax imposed on “People of the Book”—Jews and Christians living under Islamic rule—in accordance with Chapter 9, verse 29 of the Koran: “Fight against those who do not believe in Allah…from among the People of the Book, until they pay the jizyah and have been humiliated and brought low.”
Enforced during the height of Islamic political power in the days of the caliphate, collection of the tax was abandoned by secularizing governments of the modern Middle East. But some of today’s Islamist movements view the jizyah as a marker of the resurgence of Islam. For years, Paulos Faraj Rahho, archbishop of Mosul’s Chaldean Catholic community, had made jizyah payments to local militants on behalf of his diocese’s Christians. Finally, as the security situation in Iraq improved, he refused any further payments, a decision that led to his kidnapping and murder in 2008. Eventually a member of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia was convicted of the crime. Under such pressure, almost half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country.
Analogous developments are occurring in Pakistan. In April 2009 Christian day laborers residing in an impoverished part of Karachi known as Khuda ki Basti found warnings chalked on the walls of their neighborhood: “The Taliban are coming.… Be prepared to pay jizyah or embrace Islam.” When the Christians registered their defiance by erasing the threats, ethnic Pashtuns living in Karachi attacked the neighborhood, killing an 11-year-old boy and injuring several men and women. The assailants torched homes and set fire to copies of the Bible.
The National Commission for Justice and Peace, Pakistan’s leading human rights organization, has documented these abuses and others. Its director is the Catholic archbishop of Lahore, Lawrence John Saldanha. The N.C.J.P. reports that in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a group calling itself Laskhar-e Islam (Army of Islam) has begun imposing the jizyah on local minority populations of Christians, Sikhs and Hindus. Nearby, in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, the Tehrik-e Taliban-e Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban Movement) has likewise targeted non-Muslims. At St. Mary’s School in Sangota, which lies in the Swat Valley, where government troops have battled the Taliban for control, the school’s classrooms, convent and chapel were destroyed. Statues of the Buddha in the vicinity were also reportedly desecrated.
Building a Church in Yemen
Several years ago, in a conversation with Ali Abdullah Saleh, president of Yemen, Pope John Paul II petitioned for the construction of a church in Yemen’s capital. The president promised he would see to it. Nothing has come of the promise. There are no churches in Saudi Arabia either, despite the presence of over one million foreign Christian workers and a personal plea from Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. Pope Benedict noted that in the 1990s the Italian government permitted the construction of a Saudi-financed mosque in Rome, a short distance from Vatican City. Yet so far Saudi Arabia’s leaders have refused to follow suit and recognize the right to freedom of worship in their own country. Anwar Ashiqi, a Saudi religious scholar, summarizes the government’s position: “It would be possible to launch official negotiations to construct a church in Saudi Arabia only after the pope and all the Christian churches recognize the Prophet Muhammad.”
I raised this issue in a conversation in June with a Sunni imam in Yemen’s capital. An affable individual in his early 30s, this imam directs a mosque in Sanaa and is known as a hafiz (someone who has learned by heart the entire Koran). When I pointed out the disparity—mosques in Rome, no churches in Sanaa—he said this struck him as right. Islam, he stated, is al-din al-niha’i (the final, definitive religion). But Christianity and Judaism, he said, were religions from the past, outdated and superseded. “They may be permitted to exist,” he continued, “but they shouldn’t be allowed to propagate.” A church in Sanaa might attract Yemeni Muslims, thereby facilitating al-tansir: the propagation of the Nazarene faith. Better, he said, to keep Yemen as nearly as possible 100 percent Muslim.
What this imam articulated was an attitude I encountered in all too many conversations in Sanaa: a resistance to religious pluralism. By pluralism I mean the notion that spiritual paths alternative to one’s own have value; that these alternatives have something to teach us, even as they challenge us by their difference; and that one’s religious identity and spiritual life are deepened by the self-reflection triggered in the encounter with diversity. Such encounters can take place only in settings where freedom of worship is allowed to flourish. In hindering the construction of Christian churches, countries like Yemen impoverish their own Islamic faith.