Fake news: That report on Saudis striking a deal with Vatican to build churches

From John Allen at Crux, an update on a story that generated significant buzz last week:

Anyone who’s covered the Vatican for a while knows that a good chunk of the job isn’t so much reporting the actual news, but debunking “fake news” that others have shot out into the ether. We got an example this week, with a bogus story that Saudi Arabia had entered into an agreement with the Vatican to support the construction of Christian churches in the country.

At the moment, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the Middle East without a single functioning Christian church within its borders.

In essence, the story, reported by the Egypt Independent, was that the Secretary-General of the Muslim World League, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdel Karim Al-Issa, and French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, had struck an accord for the construction of churches for Christians living in Saudi Arabia during an April 16-21 visit by Tauran to Saudi Arabia.

During that trip, Tauran – who has strong street credibility in Muslim nations, given his history as an outspoken opponent of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq – was received at the royal palace by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who acts as the country’s prime minister as well as the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and his son, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Tauran also visited the Center for the Fight against Extremist Thought and met with the current grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh.

The alleged deal was reported by Breitbart in the U.S., but when Breitbart later reached out to Vatican spokesman Greg Burke for comment, he denied any deal had been struck.

…In light of the Vatican denial, two questions above all suggest themselves: Who put out the false report, and why now?

While we don’t know for sure, the fact that the story first appeared on an Egyptian news site suggests it was the Saudis, or at least someone with close ties to the Saudi regime, who instigated it. The face-value explanation would seem to be that someone wants the Saudis to be seen as not overtly hostile to Christianity, or to religious pluralism generally, presumably in order to discourage trade embargoes or other sanctions Western governments might impose.

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