Bishop sees slow progress on churches in Saudi Arabia

November 7, 2008

Saudi Arabia’s ban on churches on its territory is a thorny issue that loomed over the Catholic-Muslim Forum meeting this week in Rome. Some Catholics say the question of religious freedom for minority faiths in Muslim countries is so important that the Vatican should insist on strict reciprocity in such interfaith talks. 

(In photo: St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church opens in Doha on 15 March 2008/Fadi Al-Assaad)

However, more believe it is not a good idea to make the dialogue hostage to a single issue, so it did not become a dealbreaker here. It did get discussed in the closed-door talks, which delegates said were quite lively at times, and it was referred to in the final declaration. Cynics may say nothing was resolved, but there are interesting nuances that could lead to change.

The final declaration had this to say: “Genuine love of neighbour implies respect of the person and her or his choices in matters of conscience and religion. It includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public.” Having Muslim delegates sign up to a statement that non-Muslims should be able to worship publicly in Muslim majority countries, i.e. have their own churches, is an important step. This is clearly aimed at Saudi Arabia, where the rights of other faiths are most clearly limited. A Catholic delegate told me some Muslims did not like the final part about practising religion in private and public but their delegation head, Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, reminded them that this passage could also help minority Muslims who want to build mosques in Western countries. This is an interesting example of how the globalisation of Islam is starting to influence the traditional Muslim world.

Bishop Paul Hinder, the Abu Dhabi-based apostolic vicar of Arabia, said he sensed some change on the churches issues as well. Saudi Arabia bans the public practice of any other religion on its territory, arguing that it is holy land for Islam because the Prophet Mohammad was born there and the two most important mosques are located there. However, there are about one million Catholics in Saudi Arabia, mostly labourers from the Philippines, India and Sri Lanka, and they have no church. After the public session of the Catholic-Muslim Forum on Thursday, several journalists gathered around Hinder to ask his view of the meeting, the declaration and the outlook for Christians in Saudi Arabia. Here are some quotes:

(In photo, Bishop Hinder at left, Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric in white turban at right, 11 Nov 2008/Alessandro Bianchi)

“There is hope that things can change and even get better. It’s not the case that we have nothing on the Arabian peninsula now. We have possibilities (to worship) in many (Gulf) countries, even if they are limited. There is one country where that’s not the case, but there are signs that that could change. I think that such declarations can give a boost and a motivation. I know there are Muslim colleagues in all countries are working to make this situation change, from my point of view for the better.”

The Swiss-born bishop, who has been in Abu Dhabi for almost five years, said he told Muslims at the conference about the difficult conditions the foreign workers live in — and not just Christians.

“I had comments from Muslims who said it touched them to hear what we said about the workers of Philippine, Indian or Sri Lankan origin there. It’s not only a question of religion, it’s one of social justice. You have to go look and see for yourself. They live in labour camps. They are almost kept as slaves. They’re in a situation almost like animals. That hurts us, not only for our Christians. I’d like to see more justice and human dignity for everyone. The question of practising any religion is important. I have asked leaders in our region why, if you think of building cinemas, theatres, sports facilities, mosques and shops inside these labour camps, haven’t you yet had the idea that maybe the others — the Christians of different denominations, the Hindus or Buddhists — have a spiritual need to worship together and that one should prepare the necessary places? I have said this and I think it has been understood. Obviously, I don’t think that when I get back there in a week, they will be building chapels in labour camps in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. But we now have this final document that helps and motivates. There are people who take what we say seriously. Things are moving, even in Saudi Arabia. Sometimes it’s better not make too much noise. Telling people what to do in a loud voice prompts resistance right away. If we negotiate patiently, there is much more comprehension for what one thinks.”

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