After decades of almost constant conflict, Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. It is also a fertile ground for Islamist terrorism, since militant groups inspired by al-Qaeda are very active there. Islam is the state religion of Yemen, and sharia is the source of all the country’s legislation. Conversion from Islam is considered apostasy, and is a crime punishable by death, although it is not known if the penalty has been carried out in recent years. The very small number of Yemeni Christians, who are all converts from Islam, risk severe reprisals for practising their faith, including arrest, torture and extra-judicial killing. Converts also face danger from their families and communities. It is illegal to evangelise Muslims.
Most Christians in Yemen are expatriate workers from the West, South and East Asia and other Arab countries, or Ethiopian refugees, many of them fleeing from war and persecution at home. Although expatriate Christians are able to worship in their own churches with relative freedom, there have been instances of government interference. Christians have been arrested for “promoting Christianity and distributing the Bible”, and those found to be in possession of Christian literature believed to be intended for evangelism may be expelled from the country.
Expatriate Christians also experience other forms of subtle oppression and discrimination. They are required to gain permission to build churches, and no church buildings are allowed at all in the north of the country. Many Ethiopian Christians also face discrimination. For example, they are not permitted to be buried in Sana’a, the capital city, unless they change their name to a Muslim one.
In the centuries following Christ’s death and resurrection Christianity was strong in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, known today as Yemen, and it was ruled by a line of Christian kings. Yet in the 7th century the country became predominately Muslim, as Muhammad and his followers gradually took power in the whole Arabian Peninsula. Today, the large majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, and Christians comprise less than 0.5 per cent of the population.