Got news? Destroy all churches!

Saudi Arabia is known for its brutal repression of religious freedom. Here’s how the State Department has put it:

Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy without legal protection for freedom of religion, and such protection does not exist in practice. Islam is the official religion, and the law requires that all citizens be Muslims. The Government prohibits the public practice of non-Muslim religions. The Government recognizes the right of non-Muslims to worship in private; however, it does not always respect this right in practice.

It’s a horrible situation for religious minorities, obviously, and they do exist there despite the Kingdom’s coercive attempts. I don’t know if the lack of coverage about this situation is due to Saudi Arabia being an ally of the United States and Great Britain or what.

But last week, Saudi Arabia’s highest official of religious law moved to expand the religious repression to other countries. Here’s how Arabian Business News put it:

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’s top cleric made the comment in view of an age-old rule that only Islam can be practiced in the region.

The article goes on to say that the Grand Mufti is also the head of the Supreme Council of Ulema (Islamic scholars) and of the Standing Committee for Scientific Research and Issuing of Fatwas. We also learn that a Kuwaiti parliamentarian made plans to submit a draft law calling for the removal of Christian churches there, later saying he only wanted to prohibit construction of new churches.

Now, I would of course like to know more about this “age-old rule” regarding religious practice in the region. I assume it’s related to a hadith quoting Muhammad on his death bed, as mentioned in this Christian Broadcast News article.

But what’s most interesting about this story from a media analysis is that it generated precisely no mainstream media attention.

Can you imagine the coverage if, say, the Pope or some other major religious leader called for similar destruction? Even if it were a minor Christian or Jewish figure using such rhetoric, one imagines it would receive tremendous coverage.

I find it interesting that this is news that is covered almost exclusively in the business or Christian press. I should mention that there is a blog item at the Atlantic, which asks why there is not more denunciation of Saudi Arabia.

This is clearly an important news story and one that deserves coverage. Why doesn’t it receive more coverage? I would say that part of it is surely that it’s difficult to write critically of an ally, although journalists seem to do all right when it comes to Israel. So maybe it’s that there are so few reporters stationed in Saudi Arabia, particularly compared to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Many Middle East bureaus are, in fact, stationed in Israel, resulting in disparate coverage of that country over some of its neighbors.

Certainly language issues also come into play. It’s hard enough to cover those regions where language problems aren’t a huge concern and freedom of the press is stronger.

Still, it’s important that coverage of pronouncements harmful of religious liberty are not ignored, downplayed or poorly covered.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Don’t most of these Islamic governments have embassies in the U.S. most likely staffed by at least some English speaking staff. Why doesn’t the media do a little badgering of them??? I never see comments in media reports saying that they tried to get statements or information from those embassies. Indeed, “noone returned our calls” is a common refrain in the American media when trying to get info from difficult sources on important issues. It is a refrain I never see or hear in the few stories on this topic that make the mainstream media. I presume that means they don’t even try to ferret out information on how brutally many Islamic countries treat people of other faiths within their borders.

  • E

    I guess I don’t really see why this is news so I’d give the press a break on this one. It’s nothing new that many Sunni religious leaders, including virtually all Wahhabi leaders and scholars, support the absolute repression of all religions other than Sunni Islam. If the Pope or the head of a Protestant Church called for the destruction of all mosques in Europe, it would be news because it would be unprecedented and contrary to centuries of Christian thought. And frankly, non-famous Protestant preachers say things like this all the time and it only occasionally makes the news, when the media sees an opportunity to whip up a firestorm and sell more ads.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/blog Joe Perez

    Mollie, I would like to see more coverage of this story and thank you for calling it to my attention.

    At the same time, E may have a point. I seem to recall once passing along an article to Doug and Terry of GetReligion some years ago about a rapidly anti-gay fundamentalist Protestant preacher in the US calling for the execution of gays, and asking why stuff like that doesn’t get more coverage, and they said stuff like that is routinely ignored because it just isn’t unexpected or all that unusual. Why indulge the crackpots by giving them the attention they want, was their point.

  • Jerry

    I agree, Mollie. Although I’m very far from a fan of Fox, considering them very biased when it comes to US politics, I’m happy that they picked up the story. The International Business Times also picked it up and I hope more of the media covers it. The link I’m using to track the story is this.

    As opposed to E’s point of view, I agree about the need for extensive coverage when a fanatic with the power of the Grand Mufti makes such outrageous statements that contradicts what many, many Muslims feel is in the Quran and Hadith and which has the potential to stir up the middle east.

    But I think the one reason it might not be covered is given by a three letter word: oil. We want the Saudi’s to be accommodating when it comes to oil supplies so we remain silent when we should speak.

  • David Charkowsky

    If the purpose of the news is to entertain, then this is definitely *not* news. “All’s well in Whoville. Let the kite flying begin.”

    If the purpose of the news is to inform, then this definitely *is* news, because it reveals truths about the world we live in.

    If the purpose of news is entertainment, it’s a pretty vicious form of entertainment when you consider the casualties.

  • Maureen

    The point here is that Saudi Arabia is throwing its weight around in other sovereign states, in the territory of royal clans older in the region than their own, and in a way that almost seems to threaten or promise conquest of those other sovereign states.

    This particularly harks back to the destruction of one of the great buildings of Arabia, the al-Qalis basilica in Sana’a, Yemen, which was dismantled and used for spare parts for the local Great Mosque by non-Yemeni Islamic forces. People from Yemen still say that it wasn’t so much out of Islamic fervor, as out of the envy of people from Mecca for a building far more beautiful than any mosques over there.

  • carl

    Many Middle East bureaus are, in fact, stationed in Israel

    Heh. I wonder why that would be? No, I don’t actually. (Isreal? Egypt? Saudi Arabia? … Israel!)

    As to the topic. The media is ever vigilant to expose the persecution and suppression of journalists worldwide. That is because the media identifies with foreign journalists. Their struggle is a common struggle for al of hournalism. But it must be hard for largely secular journalists to identify with religious persecution because they feel no possibility of threat. Perhaps it is nothing more than a journalistic blindspot?

    Or perhaps it is a journalistic judgment that the audience won’t much care. I immediately thought of the Koran-burning story in Florida. That story originated in a small unknown church but it fed many stereotypes, and played into wider political/cultural conflicts. There were all kinds of people who would react to that story like wolves on red meat. But the only natural audience for this story about Islam would be “fundamentalists” (the bete noire of journalist) and people who want to isolate Islam as ontologically different from other religions. Neither represent a cause that journalists want to aid and abet.

    carl

  • Rod

    E is right. This isn’t news. This kind of information is basic knowledge of world geography and moreover basic religious literacy. Any journalist covering world religions or Mid East affairs should know this. Moreover this is not this “age-old rule” as the Saud monarchy is only recent history, created only after WWI when the UK installed the current Wahhabi regime where there wasn’t any kings before. While it isn’t news, it should be common knowledge.

    If this isn’t common knowledge about the extreme nature of Wahhabists, then consider Saudi Arabia is one of our biggest allies in the Mid East and it is the largest producer of oil in the world, so we have went along with right to rule themselves. Also know that know that a Saudi prince is the second largest stockholder in Fox News (News Corp) behind Rupert Murdoch, so you will not hear a peep from them.

  • sari

    This is not news to anyone familiar with Middle East, but it should be made news to the general public. How else can citizens make informed decisions or analyze the actions of their elected officials when they’re missing large chunks of relevant data?

  • MJBubba
  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Joe writes:

    “At the same time, E may have a point. I seem to recall once passing along an article to Doug and Terry of GetReligion some years ago about a rapidly anti-gay fundamentalist Protestant preacher in the US calling for the execution of gays, and asking why stuff like that doesn’t get more coverage, and they said stuff like that is routinely ignored because it just isn’t unexpected or all that unusual. Why indulge the crackpots by giving them the attention they want, was their point.”

    I feel that way when it comes to a certain Kansas-based family/cult. But that’s because their actual influence is a few dozen people — not counting the media that hang on their every action and funeral protest.

    I basically try not to cover them or talk about them unless there’s a free speech case or something like that.

    But this guy really is powerful and important. Millions of followers, respected scholar, etc. Seems different.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com 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.

  • Bill

    Let’s see… Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia says all churches in the Arabian Penninsula must be destroyed; Rev. Zeke of the First Church of the Handled Serpent in Possums Springs, Kentucky says gays should be executed. I wonder which fatwa carries more authority.

    The press dare not say the Grand Mufti. That would be Islamophobia.

  • Will

    Are the meeja really using “Islamophobia” that loosely?

    I think Bill and others may be displaying signs of Islamophobophobophobia. (And playing the race card card.)

  • John Pack Lambert

    This is news because in the past Saudi Arabia has not actively tried to destroy churches in neighboring states. Many Churches function and exist not only in Kuwait, but in the UAE and probably other gulf states. If Saudi Arabia is going to start putting on pressure to destroy these churches it is a big story.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Islam is not a race. So to claim anyone is “playing the race card” is hogwash.

    Another possible reason why the media does not care about this is that the people who will suffer most will primarily be Filipino workers in the gulf states. They far outnumber the Americans in the region, and a higher percentage of them are religious. It is probably too much to expect the media to cover Brown Christians being persecuted, especially when it is being done by basically White Muslims. That just does not fit the paradigm of who is the persecutor and who is the persecuted, and so it has to be ignored.

  • Richard Mounts

    Maybe most of MSM don’t want to give this story play is because of the current church/state battle over religious liberty. This story about the Grand Mufti can give Christianity a patina of being victimized. Then maybe more Americans will believe that the HHS really is being unfair to Christians.

    Given Charles Colson’s recent call to Evangelicals to stand up with the Catholic Bishops (I apologize but I’m too technically inept to put the link here–I followed a Twitter link from Ameican Pappist), publishing the Grand Mufti’s comments might be more than some in the media care to risk.

  • Bill

    I think Bill and others may be displaying signs of Islamophobophobophobia. (And playing the race card card.)

    No doubt. And sexism, homophobia and environmental insensitivity. Or maybe it’s just pyroecclesiaphobia – the irrational fear of burning churches.

  • Will

    Go back and read what I wrote. Those are not typos. (Sigh…)

  • sari

    Another possible reason why the media does not care about this is that the people who will suffer most will primarily be Filipino workers in the gulf states.

    Maybe, though the Saudis’ restrictions on religious observance made life difficult for American servicepeople stationed in the region.

    My feeling is that, after 911, the MSM and the federal government feared a backlash against Muslims. That, combined with the violent reaction of a certain subset of Muslims to any criticism of their religion or Mohammed, has effectively muzzled the media–self-muzzled, really.

  • Felix

    “Why doesn’t it receive more coverage? I would say that part of it is surely that it’s difficult to write critically of an ally”

    But journalists don’t have allies, countries do. Are you suggesting that the American media doesn’t like to criticise foreign governments who are in favor with the Adminsitration?

  • Mollie

    Felix,

    Well, if journalists are citizens of a given country, that ally/enemy dynamic can’t be fully ignored, can it? I mean, one might write about the Nazis differently than the Allied forces, no?

    The New York Times, in explaining why it didn’t accept a close anti-Islamist copy of an anti-Catholic ad last week, said it was to protect U.S. troops in harm’s way, for instance.

  • sari

    The New York Times, in explaining why it didn’t accept a close anti-Islamist copy of an anti-Catholic ad last week, said it was to protect U.S. troops in harm’s way, for instance.

    They made a public statement to that effect? Wow!! It’s a reasonable rationale given the current situation overseas, but, in that light, it would have been better to set a policy, at least for now, of not running any such ads rather than give the impression of favoritism.

  • Bill

    The New York Times, in explaining why it didn’t accept a close anti-Islamist copy of an anti-Catholic ad last week, said it was to protect U.S. troops in harm’s way, for instance.

    Good one! Now, how am I going to clean all that coffee off my screen.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Bill and Sari,
    I was serious. That’s how I read this write-up about the rejection of the ad in the Daily Caller at least:

    According to a Mar. 13 letter sent by the Times to the ad’s sponsor, anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller, the $39,000 anti-Islam ad was rejected because “the fallout from running this ad now could put U.S. troops and/or civilians in the [Afghan] region in danger.”

  • sari

    I believe you, Mollie. I was appalled, both by the initial ad and by the Times’ policy.

    A few thoughts:

    Free Speech: The Times, indeed any publisher, has the right to print what it wants to print, no matter how potentially offensive to segments of their readers. People can always voice their disapproval by unsubscribing, writing letters to the editor, denouncing the paper online and by word of mouth, etc.

    Bias: If the Times chooses to accept inflammatory ads for publication, then it needs to do so across the board. It was not a stretch to anticipate submission of similar ads targeting other faith groups once the first was published; the persons in charge should have set a policy of all or none. Right now, their actions can only be seen as biased.

    Coverage: Someone needs to step up and cover this topic as national news. It is very important that the public see how the media self-censors news relevant to the public, be it in the area of religion or some other topic. If they’re censoring because they fear for our servicepeople, then that should be stated. If it’s to protect Muslim-Americans, that should be said, too. But people need to know.

  • Bill

    Mollie,

    The Times had no problem covering Quran desecrations, Abu Graib, drone attacks on civilians and massacres. Might those stories not put American troops at risk? I’m not suggesting for a moment that the Times should not cover those stories. But their new-found concern for the safety of our troops rings hollow, like their concern that poor Catholic boobs might be thrown into a tizzy over “consubstantial.”

    I’m with Sari on this. The Times can publish whatever it wants. But if they accept offensive ads against Catholics but not others, they should admit they are biased. And acknowledge they are brave and edgy only against safe targets who will turn the other cheek and not react violently.