For some years now, the Vatican has made reciprocity the key to its relations with Muslim-majority states. For example, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican equivalent of foreign minister, commented in 2003 that "There are too many majority Muslim countries where non-Muslims are second-class citizens" and pushed for reciprocity: "Just as Muslims can build their houses of prayer anywhere in the world, the faithful of other religions should be able to do so as well."
That sounded good, but does anyone actually expect churches to be built in Saudi Arabia, the country that most severely represses non-Islamic religious expression?
Yes, come the surprise announcements. Archbishop Paul-Mounged El-Hashem, the papal nuncio to Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, says that "Discussions are under way to allow the construction of churches in the kingdom. … There are around three or four million Christians in Saudi Arabia, and we hope they will have churches." Father Federico Lombardi, the pope's spokesman, adds: "If we manage to obtain authorisation for the construction of the first church, it will be an outcome of historic dimensions."
"Our Lady of the Rosary," Qatar's first Christian church, lacks cross, bell steeple, and signage.
Incidentally, Qatar's deputy prime minister, Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, directly addressing the topic of reciprocity: "We [Muslims] are enjoying the construction of mosques and Islamic centres in the west, so we must be fair [to Christians]."
Comment: Should even a single church open in Saudi Arabia, no matter how restricted, hidden, and threatened in, it will be truly significant step, a tribute to both the Vatican's new, tougher policy and to King Abdullah's reform efforts. (March 18, 2008)
Mar. 20, 2008 update: If Anwar Ashiqi, identified as president of something called the "Saudi Centre for Middle East Strategic Studies," has his way, there won't be a church anytime soon in Saudi Arabia. He explained in an interview on Al-Arabiya television today:
I have taken part in several meetings related to Islamic-Christian dialogue and there have been negotiations on this issue. It would be possible to launch official negotiations to construct a church in Saudi Arabia only after the Pope and all the Christian churches recognise the prophet Mohammed. If they don't recognise him as a prophet, how can we have a church in the Saudi kingdom?
Brilliant question – wonder why I had not thought of it myself.
Another negative Saudi reaction came from Abdelaziz al-Thinani, a member of the kingdom's Consultative Council, who rejected Paul-Mounged El-Hashem's statement (above) that "There are around three or four million Christians in Saudi Arabia." Thinani retorted that there are no Christian Saudis, all of whom are Muslims, and "Those few Christians [in the kingdom] do not reside in the country permanently, [but] they come and go." Further, he sees no connection between human rights and the construction of a church.
Comment: As I say, opening a single church in Saudi Arabia in any circumstances will be remarkable achievement.
Mar. 24, 2008 update: The Arabic-language e-newspaper Elaph reports today a poll of Qataris in which 60 percent endorse the church, 36 percent oppose it, and 4 don't know/have no opinion.