Freedom of religion is non-negotiable

Here is a news story that I have picked up on Twitter but which you may have missed elsewhere. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has called for all churches in the Arabian peninsula to be destroyed. Read all about it here and here

The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia is not some marginal figure, rather he is the chief religious authority of the Saudi Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia is one of the leading countries in the Sunni Muslim world. The Mufti’s words will surely be taken seriously by many. We ought to take them seriously too.

This does not mean that the bulldozers are about to demolish churches in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They can’t, because there are no churches in Saudi Arabia – the government of the kingdom has never allowed them to be built in the first place. Nor are Christians allowed to organise, to meet in worshipping congregations, or to celebrate any Christian feast. Nor is it true that there are no Christians in Saudi. Expatriate workers from the Philippines and Kerala and other Christian lands form a significant part of the population. If they wish to practice their faith, they have to do so in fear and trembling, conscious of the much feared Saudi religious police. 

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The only place Mass can be offered in Saudi Arabia is inside a foreign embassy. If it is, it is never publicised, for fear of upsetting the Saudi authorities.

But the bulldozers could make an impact in the Gulf States, which have allowed the building of churches for their foreign residents.

This story reminds us of the intolerance of the Saudi state, a state with which our own government enjoys the warmest of relations, it seems. Next time Mr Cameron goes to Riyadh, will he mention the plight of Saudi Christians to his hosts? I doubt it.

One person who has brought this up is the Pope. Benedict XVI has constantly urged what he calls “reciprocity”. This means effectively that Muslims should grant to Christians the same freedoms that Christians grant to Muslims. Just as the Italian state has allowed the building of a mosque in Rome, our holy city, so should we be allowed to build a church in Riyadh or even Mecca.

The Grand Mufti and all who think like him need to be challenged. Religious freedom is something we claim of right, not of privilege. The freedom of Christians to pray, to meet, to organise, to own buildings – these are non-negotiable.

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