Fighting the fatwa

One of our most visited pages last month was a post about the lack of coverage of comments made by Saudi Arabia’s top religious official (Got news? Destroy all churches!). As I mentioned in that post, Arabian Business News reported:

The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has said it is “necessary to destroy all the churches of the region,” following Kuwait’s moves to ban their construction.

Speaking to a delegation in Kuwait, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, stressed that since the tiny Gulf state was a part of the Arabian Peninsula, it was necessary to destroy all of the churches in the country, Arabic media have reported.

Saudi Arabia has one of the most repressive governments when it comes to religious freedom, and that should be known, even if it’s downplayed in much of the media. But spreading that authoritarian policy to neighboring states sure seems like news. We discussed why it wasn’t covered more. The whole comment thread was interesting, including this media criticism from Tioedong:

Missing from this story: The “invisible man”: The over one million Catholics who live in Saudi but are invisible because they are merely “OFW” (overseas foreign workers).

Too bad about Kuwait: My relatives always preferred to work in Kuwait, where they could practice their religion, than in Saudi, where their rosaries were thrown away and they didn’t have a church to attend.

My favorite news site for overseas religion news has long been Reuters and George pointed out this article that did follow-up on this story. I wanted to highlight it, headlined “Europe bishops slam Saudi fatwa against Gulf churches.” See, even if many journalists didn’t think it was particularly newsworthy, many Christians have worried about how their coreligionists are being treated in other parts of the world.

(Reuters) – Christian bishops in Germany, Austria and Russia have sharply criticised Saudi Arabia’s top religious official after reports that he issued a fatwa saying all churches on the Arabian Peninsula should be destroyed.

In separate statements on Friday, the Roman Catholic bishops in Germany and Austria slammed the ruling by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh as an unacceptable denial of human rights to millions of foreign workers in the Gulf region.

Archbishop Mark of Yegoryevsk, head of the Russian Orthodox department for churches abroad, called the fatwa “alarming” in a statement on Tuesday. Such blunt criticism from mainstream Christian leaders of their Muslim counterparts is very rare.

The story, like many Reuters religion reports, does a good job of combining the basic facts with some helpful explanations of why they’re significant. The overseas foreign worker angle is a major theme. We learn that most of the 3.5 million of them are Catholics from India and the Philippines, but that there are also Western expatriates from all denominations. The article compares the complete ban on religious freedom in Saudia Arabia with the slightly more favorable conditions in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Yemen.

I found a few of the details in the article to be particularly interesting:

The bishops conference in Austria, where Saudi King Abdullah plans to open a controversial centre for interfaith dialogue, demanded an official explanation from Riyadh.

“How could the grand mufti issue a fatwa of such importance behind the back of his king?” they asked. “We see a contradiction between the dialogue being practiced, the efforts of the king and those of his top mufti.”

The quotes really make the piece and we get some good ones from around the world. The article also notes that the comments from the Moscow Patriarchate — what was mostly silent under its own Communist oppression — has become more vocal in defending global religious liberty.

Just a very nice and helpful story about an area of concern.

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  • Brendan

    Thanks for the follow up piece.

  • Hasan Hakeem

    The Muslim world was silent on the outrageous fatwa of this Saudi Cleric. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community condemned his so-called fatwa:

  • Jeff

    The Saudis recognize, as we all do, that Christian churches are a threat to women’s health. [Sarcasm alert]

  • tioedong

    The Wikipedia article on Fatwas is interesting (if true), the secular authority states that in Sunni Islam, such edicts are not binding on anyone, but merely opinions that secular authorities should consider.

    Usually a fatwas should invoke previous pronouncements by other Islamic scholars going back hundreds of years, similar to how a western court or the Vatican frame their decisions, to justify their pronouncements. Was this done here, or did he just spout out his opinion based on one quote taken out of context?

    This “pronouncement” was not a long scholarly opinion, but one given off the cuff to a Kuwaiti delegation.

    As with many grand muftis before him, the Sheikh based his proclamation on the famous tradition, or hadith, wherein the prophet of Islam declared on his deathbed that “There are not to be two religions in the [Arabian] Peninsula,” which has always been interpreted to mean that only Islam can be practiced in the region.

    What is ironic about this is that geographically, Kuwait is not part of the Peninsula, although the other Gulf states are. So essentially the Mufti is saying Kuwait is part of Saudi Arabia.

    There are secular overtones to this “religious” story: (The Saudis helped the local Sunni princes against the Arab spring uprisings in these countries last year, and sees them as allies against an upcoming Shiite Iran with an atomic bomb).

    Remember, the other Gulf states are not run by Arab desert tribesmen, but are sophisticated trading ports run by princes that have a thousand years of trading with infidels behind them. True, they are run by Sunni princes, but most of the locals are Shiitee Muslims or overseas workers of various faiths.

  • Rod

    That Grand Mufti is getting negative press exposure means the current Saudi government is willing to air this dirty laundry and does not agree with the Muftis extreme views. Saudi Arabia does not have a free press and any news that gets out of the kingdom is sanctioned by the government.

    There is more subtly to this story than meets the eye. Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an internal struggle, with the current King Abdullah trying to modernize his country against the longstanding conservative Sudairi establishment, however slow the pace of change. Its a generational change long overdue. In the meanwhile the current Saudi regime is our biggest ally in the region against Iran and its damaging to our interests to lump all Saudis together negatively as some of our Islamaphobes do.