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FOR a generation the Saudi antiquities authority has kept it under wraps. The ruins remain out of bounds behind metal gates and wire fencing. A guard shoos the curious away with threats of arrest. But if independent studies are correct, tucked in the dunes and palms near the eastern oilfields lies a 7th-century monastery, the existence of which suggests that Islam once tolerated church-building in Arabia.
Muhammad bin Salman, the modernising crown prince, has defied clerics by allowing cinemas, open-air pop concerts and even female drivers in his puritanical kingdom. But approving churches for the 1.4m Christians in Saudi Arabia risks breaking one taboo too many. “Elsewhere it’s no problem, but two dins, or religions, have no place in the Arabian peninsula,” says a senior prince, reciting a purported saying of the Prophet Muhammad. Churches were expunged by the first community of Muslims 14 centuries ago, he insists.
Excavation at Jubail and other sites along the eastern coast suggests otherwise. Chroniclers record the existence of a synod in a diocese called Beit Qatraye, near Jubail, in 676AD, more than 40 years after the Prophet’s death. Moreover, the peninsula’s six other countries all have churches. Qatar, which follows the same Wahhabi school of Islam as Saudi Arabia, let one be built a decade ago. Bahrain did so in 1906. This year it broke ground on Our Lady of Arabia, a new cathedral.
Saudi exceptionalism matters because the kingdom is home to Islam’s holiest sites and is the prime propagator of the faith. In October Prince Muhammad said he wanted Saudi Arabia to be “open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe”. But off the Saudi coast in Bahrain, Camillo Ballin, the Catholic bishop of Northern Arabia, complains that nothing has changed for Saudi Arabia’s Christians. Private prayer is tolerated, but the public display of Christian symbols is not. Communion in a country that bans wine is problematic. Priests sneak in as cooks or mechanics to tend to their flocks.
The bishop’s website likens clandestine prayer meetings to the tribulations of early Christians under the Roman empire. In the wing of a foreign embassy in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, next to the bar, a table covered in black cloth serves as the altar. A priest raises a bible and pronounces the sacrament. A packed multinational congregation sings the Gloria. “For your sufferings you will be saved,” incants the priest.
Some Saudi theologians call for a rethink. They insist that the Prophet’s prohibition against two dins has been mistranslated (din means religious authority, not religion) and claim he never intended the ban on non-Muslim worship to cover the entire peninsula. His Declaration of Medina, a treaty providing for coexistence with Jews, “could yet be our model”, says an official at the Islamic affairs ministry.
Abdullah, the previous Saudi king, opened an interfaith centre, but located it in far-off Vienna. More courageously, Prince Muhammad has hosted Christian clergymen at home. Saudi media have run footage of the Maronite patriarch and a papal emissary, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, dressed in full religious regalia, crucifixes included, meeting the king. A decree stripping the religious police of their powers to arrest gives sanctuary to Christians who stage large prayer meetings at home. Bigoted preachers have been removed from the airwaves and injunctions to fight the unbelievers deleted from primary-school textbooks. The opening of a papal legation and construction of a church, predicts a royal adviser, are only a matter of time. One potential venue is Neom, a planned city in the far north-west, which could be declared outside the Arabian peninsula.
Much hangs on the whim of Prince Muhammad. His jailing of critics has curbed dissent. The chief mufti, who called for an end to church-building on the peninsula after Kuwait built one in 2012, judiciously holds his tongue. But suppression could provoke a backlash. “Toleration is more palatable when applied tolerantly,” says a nervous Saudi author.
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Hosannahs in the sand?”
Aug 2nd 2018