'Destroy All the Churches': Saudi Arabia's Poor Treatment of Christians

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Why don't more Americans talk about religious abuses in the ultra-conservative kingdom?

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Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh / Reuters

The Middle East Forum reports that

According to several Arabic news sources, last Monday, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, declared that it is "necessary to destroy all the churches of the region." The Grand Mufti made his assertion in response to a question posed by a delegation from Kuwait: a Kuwaiti parliament member recently called for the "removal" of churches (he later "clarified" by saying he merely meant that no churches should be built in Kuwait), and the delegation wanted to confirm Sharia's position on churches. Accordingly, the Grand Mufti "stressed that Kuwait was a part of the Arabian Peninsula, and therefore it is necessary to destroy all churches in it.

This report brought back memories of a trip to Saudi Arabia that I took in January 2001, before joining the Bush Administration. I travelled there as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the delegation (which included Cardinal McCarrick) met with government officials and religious authorities.  To several, we made the argument that as Saudis claim to value religious faith and practice so deeply, surely they could understand the terrible hardship they were creating for the many Christians who lived in the Kingdom by forbidding them to worship. They can worship at home, came the reply (somewhat disingenuously, for we knew that the religious police often broke up such private religious services). That isn't enough, we argued, especially for Roman Catholics whose religion includes the sacraments that only a priest can administer. And there are roughly a million and a half Catholics, mostly Filipinos, here in Saudi Arabia, we said. Too bad, came the reply; they knew our rules before they came, and the rule is no religion other than Islam in Arabia. No churches. Period.

Well, we noted, there are churches in every other country on the Arabian Peninsula: Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE. You are the only exception. Are you suggesting that all those churches should be closed? Yes, came the reply. Every one of them.

So the reported statement by the Grand Mufti came as no surprise to me. Nor is it a surprise, considering his interpretation of Islam, that the religious police make it so difficult for Christians even to worship privately, in their homes. In a better world, the UN Human Rights Council would be denouncing these violations of freedom of religion, as would the whole Organization of Islamic Cooperation--given that Saudi Arabia is the only one of its 57 member countries that absolutely bars churches. In the world in which we actually live, denunciations of the Saudis for this are almost non-existent.

To give credit where it is due, the U.S. Government, in the latest International Religious Freedom report issued by the State Department, honestly states that "Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and is severely restricted in practice....The government officially does not permit non-Muslim clergy to enter the country to conduct religious services, although some do so under other auspices and are able to hold services. These entry restrictions make it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with clergy. This is particularly problematic for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, whose faiths require that they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis."

This is not as frank as some of the earlier Bush Administration human rights reports, which until 2005 stated flatly that "Freedom of religion did not exist" in Saudi Arabia. The Grand Mufti's statement ought to be widely denounced around the world, and won't be--a scandal and a shame.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Formerly deputy national security adviser on Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush administration, Abrams was also an assistant secretary of state for UN affairs, human rights, and Latin America in the Reagan administration. Abrams blogs at Pressure Points.

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