Leave it to the impolitic Russians to demand a church in the forbidden city of Mecca, Paul Goble explains in "A Saudi Mosque in Moscow in Exchange for a Russian Church in Mecca?"
The story begins with a Muslim population in Moscow estimated as many as 2.5 million but a mere four mosques – no more than at the end of Soviet times, when Muslims were many fewer. In response, on Nov. 20, Rushan Abbyasov, the head of the international department of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) announced that, "if the Russian authorities will offer" an appropriate site, Saudi King Abdullah would finance a mosque and Islamic cultural center in Moscow.
Goble reports that while local Muslims "were delighted by the offer and the attention from abroad it suggests, … many non-Muslim Russians were horrified that another mosque might be opened in their capital." In particular, three Russian Orthodox groups (the Moscow section of the Union of Orthodox Citizens, the Radonezh Society, and the Byzantine Club) released an open letter to Abdullah suggesting conditions for Moscow's fifth mosque:
- As the Saudi government "is building mosques in dozens of Christian countries," it should give permission for Christians to build a church within Saudi borders.
- It is "very important" to lift restrictions against Christians visiting Mecca and Medina.
- Christian visitors to Saudi Arabia should be allowed to wear crosses.
- Courses about Christianity in general and Russian Orthodoxy in particular should be taught in schools.
- In exchange for the Saudis broadcasting television programs on Islam to the Russian Federation, "it would be just" to offer Saudi subjects "the opportunity to watch Russian Orthodox channels." This would, they note, help Muslims learn that "Christians don't believe in three gods, don't distort the Bible and don't pray to idols."
Individual Russian commentators were yet more outspoken. Arkady Maler, an author on cultural issues, urged rejection of the king's funds not just for reasons of reciprocity but also some Russian jurisdictions have declared Wahhabism illegal. Dmitry Volodikhin, a Russian nationalist writer, suggested that Moscow needs to restore Russian churches for Orthodox Christians before it permitting new mosques.
Muslim leaders tended to lie low during this dust-up, but Nafigulla Ashirov, head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the Asiatic Portion of Russia commented that the each country's laws should determine what the followers of each faith can do. Building mosques in Russia, in other words, has nothing to do with opening churches in Saudi Arabia.
Comment: Under Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church's policy of reciprocity toward Islam finds some of its leading figures calling for churches in Saudi Arabia:
- Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican equivalent of foreign minister, in 2003: "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."
- Cardinal Karl Lehmann, head of the German bishops' conference, demanded in 2007 that if Muslims can built mosques in Europe, he should be able to hold a mass in Saudi Arabia.
- Archbishop Paul-Mounged El-Hashem, papal nuncio to Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen: "Discussions are under way to allow the construction of churches in the kingdom."
Were the Russian Orthodox seriously to add its weight to the Catholic effort, it could pay off – not with a church in Mecca but perhaps with churches in those places where Christians live. (November 26, 2008)