Church & State

Saudi church-building deal dismissed as “fake news”

Ajyad Mosque, Mecca. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Claims that Saudi Arabia had agreed with the Vatican to allow the building of churches for the first time in its history were dismissed as “fake news” this week. News reports in the Egyptian press claimed on 4 May that Saudi Arabia had made a deal with the Vatican to construct churches for “Christian citizens”.

But the Vatican later denied any such deal had been made, and the Egypt Independent, the original source of the story, removed the article from its website.

The paper had originally stated that the Muslim World League, an organisation funded by the Saudi Government which promotes Islamic teachings, had signed the deal with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue.

The report did not state whether any churches would potentially be built in Saudi Arabia itself.

The country follows a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and it is impossible for any of its “citizens” to openly practice Christianity. Saudi Arabia does allow Christians from other nations, who mainly come from the Philippines, other parts of Asia, or African countries to enter the country for temporary work. But foreign workers must meet in private homes to worship, and risk harassment, arrest and deportation if they are caught doing so.

The Kingdom’s administrative laws state that its constitution is the “The Holy Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah (traditions)”, and the judicial system operates on a strict interpretation of sharia law, which officially carries the death penalty for any Muslim citizen who converts to Christianity. Adult males and female are both subject to the death penalty for apostasy from Islam under the Sunni Hanbali form of sharia law practised in Saudi Arabia.

Ironically, under current sharia jurisprudence, if Saudi Arabia did indeed allow church building for “Christian citizens”, Muslim background believers, who attended a church would still risk execution for publicly declaring their faith.

An unknown number of Christians from Muslim backgrounds in Saudi Arabia follow Christ, in almost total secrecy.

The original report also stated that a joint committee for the Vatican and the Muslim World League would meet every two years, which suggests if any agreement had been signed between the parties it would be a notional one rather than having any immediate effect.

During his visit to Riyad, Cardinal Tauran is reported to have met with Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman. However, it is unlikely that the Crown Prince would go so far as to consider church building within Saudi Arabia, where any such moves are likely to cause uproar among its Muslim citizens who widely adhere to hadith teachings (the tradition of reporting what Muhammad said or did).

“It has been narrated by ‘Umar b. al-Khattib that he heard the Messenger of Allah say: I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslim.” (Sahih Muslim Book 19, Hadith 4366).