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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