EDITORIAL NOTE: Since the publication of this article, it was reported that the Vatican had dismissed as “false” news that the agreement included the construction of churches in Saudi Arabia. We have requested clarification on the matter from the Vatican.
“This is the beginning of a rapprochement… It is a sign that the Saudi authorities are now ready to give a new image to the country,” one of the most senior Catholic officials, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, told the Vatican News website after returning from Riyadh.
Tauran was in Saudi Arabia for a week in the middle of last month, in a visit that was widely covered by local media, and mostly ignored by the English-language press. He met with the de-facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and with multiple spiritual leaders.
The final accord signed between Tauran and Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdel Karim Al-Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League, a leading Wahhabi NGO, paves the way not only for building projects, but has outlined plans for Muslim-Christian summits and for greater rights for non-Islamic worshippers in the Gulf kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has a reputation as one of the most religiously intolerant regimes in the world. Non-Muslims are punished for any displays of their religion outside of their homes, while any Muslim who decides to convert to another faith is subject to a death sentence for apostasy. Islamic religious law is imposed uniformly on all those resident in the oil-rich state, regardless of beliefs, while a dedicated religious police oversees compliance.
Nonetheless, there has been an influx of migrant workers to the kingdom in the past decades, and more than 1.5 million Christians are thought to be in the country, mostly from the Philippines.
Attempts to negotiate a more visible status for Christianity by the Vatican date back years and, in 2008, it also announced a potentially “historic” agreement to construct the first modern-day church, a plan that was eventually shelved.
But the possibility of at least a cosmetic display of tolerance appears more likely in the reign of the image-conscious Mohammed bin Salman, who has already abandoned several landmark customs, such as those forbidding women from driving, or requiring them to be under the constant supervision of their guardians.