Saudi Arabian Churches: A Vatican Pipe Dream?

Much has been made of reports that the Vatican is holding talks with Saudi Arabia on building churches in the Gulf monarchy, the birthplace of Islam and stronghold of the conservative Wahhabi school of thought.

But it’s hard to imagine imminent breakthroughs, given broad-based scholarly opposition anchored in prophetic traditions and centuries of jurisprudence and commentary.

The IslamOnline (IOL) web site posted an article in Arabic polling prominent clerics on the issue, and offers some insight into the magnitude of clerical opposition such a prospect would generate.

The sheikhs rejected the idea as violating a basic Islamic commandment.

Crucially, IOL’s correspondent said a source close to a Saudi government-appointed religious body said that the issue would be raised with a view to issuing a fatwa, or religious edict, reiterating the existing prohibition.

An earlier fatwa by the same body several years ago and signed by Saudi Arabia’s mufti Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh, among others, had upheld the ban on all non-Muslim houses of worship.

At the heart of the issue are spoken traditions of the Prophet Mohammed ordering the expulsion of the Arab peninsula’s non-Muslims and saying that no two religions are to co-exist there.

Past scholars have debated the extent of the hadiths’ application, and a significant number of scholars advocated an interpretation that covers the Peninsula south of the Levant, with some excluding Yemen.

Even relative liberal Taha Jaber el-Alwani said the issue is effectively closed to reinterpretation due to the volume of existing commentary and rulings, dating back to Islam’s first centuries.

The crux of the matter is a conception of the peninsula as a bastion of Islam, akin to a Muslim Vatican. Muslim scholars are fond of saying it’s as unreasonable to ask to build churches in Saudi Arabia as it would be to ask to build a protestant church in Vatican city... much less a mosque.

The issue is already marring Muslim-Christian dialogue prospects. The Vatican has been lukewarm in responding to calls by Muslim scholars for an interfaith dialogue, and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran said talks would need to address why some Muslim states limit church building while Muslims can build mosques in Europe.

That’s unlikely to overcome doctrinal opposition, especially since European mosque building is facing a raft of troubles, from petitions and protests, to clashes and court cases.

It’s illustrative to note that a Saudi quasi-parliamentary body recently refused tosupport moves by Muslim countries to have the U.N. draw up a pact on respecting religions, for fear it would require Saudi to recognise faiths it considers mere idol-worshipping.

The Vatican could be banking on King Abdullah’s reputation as a reformer at odds with an entrenched and conservative clergy. But it’s a tall order to expect Abdullah to defy centuries of doctrine, risking his standing with Islamic scholars for little in the way of tangible returns.

It looks like the building of churches in Saudi Arabia will remain a stumbling block in Muslim-Christian dialogue for the foreseeable future.