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.”