Sunday, 18 March 2012

Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia calls for the destruction of churches in the Arabian Peninsula

Can you imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury or even the Pope calling for the destruction of mosques in Europe? You can expect the predictable outcry that would cause. Most of the Muslim world and the Western media will erupt into a frenzy of heated criticism, with usual shrill cries of ‘bigot’ and demands for apologies. Yet the recent remarks by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, that churches in the Arabian Peninsula should be destroyed have gone almost unnoticed. Only a few media organisations like Russia Today have given this any publicity.

The Grand Mufti made his controversial remarks in response to a question from a Kuwaiti NGO, the Society of the Revival of Islamic Heritage. He cited the Prophet Mohammed, who said the Arabian Peninsula should exist only under one religion. Of course, in Saudi Arabia the Mufti already has his way because there are no churches there. The Saudi government has never allowed the construction of any church in the country or for non-Muslims to meet and worship.  Other Gulf States do allow some Christian worship but with very strict restrictions in place.

What the Grand Mufti said will have an impact. He is not some marginal figure but the chief religious authority of Saudi Arabia, one of the main centres of Sunni Islam. His remarks should therefore be taken seriously.

Compare the reaction to the Grand Mufti’s remarks and the outcry over one obscure American pastor last year. It seemed as though the future of world peace was at stake when Pastor Terry Jones threatened to burn a Koran. Never mind he had a following of only about thirty people. Even Western leaders like President Obama stepped into the controversy with all the accompanying apologetic handwringing.

Can we expect David Cameron, Barrack Obama or Hillary Clinton to issue similar criticisms of the Grand Mufti’s remarks or even speak about the plight of Christians in Saudi Arabia? I doubt it very much. The American and British elites have very close relations with their Saudi counterparts, the House of Saud. In return for oil, America provides Saudi Arabia with a security guarantor; and despite a terrible human rights record, Western leaders are careful not to criticise Saudi Arabia publicly. Even the official report into the 9/11 tragedy was heavily redacted so as not to offend Saudi Arabia from where most of the hijackers came from.

All this highlights the issue of “reciprocity,” which Pope Benedict XVI has constantly talked about. As Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith says in the Catholic Herald, reciprocity means “effectively that Muslims should grant to Christians the same freedoms that Christians grant to Muslims. Just as the Italian state has allowed the building of a mosque in Rome, our holy city, so should we be allowed to build a church in Riyadh or even Mecca.”

It may be highly optimistic to expect to see a church in Riyadh or Mecca, but I don’t think it is unreasonable to at least question the controversial remarks made by the Grand Mufti. Just as Muslims are allowed to freely worship in non-Muslim countries, Christians should have every right to worship in Muslim countries.