Most news about Christians in the Middle East these days is gloomy. The Christian presence in Iraq is a fraction of what it was 20 years ago. Syria is wracked by brutal conflict. The burgeoning of Coptic churches outside Egypt is a token of mass emigration. Palestinian and Lebanese Christians have been leaving the region in droves for over a century, contributing significantly to the population of Latin America among other destinations. Terrorism is rampant, and non-Muslims – or, as the horrendous attack on the Sinai mosque has shown, Muslims of different denominations – are favoured targets.
So when there is some good news, it is worth giving it some attention. The visit of Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai to Riyadh on November 13 was ground-breaking in ways that need some knowledge of the historical context to be fully understood.
The Saudi government explained in a press release that a patriarch had come once before to Saudi Arabia (in 1975), and that various bishops had come as part of official delegations over the years. Those earlier visits, however, were quiet affairs, masked by the presence of various other non-religious dignitaries.
Patriarch Rai’s visit, by contrast, was proudly announced. Photographs of a patriarch and accompanying bishops, complete with pectoral crosses, in the corridors of a palace in the kingdom where Christians have been forbidden for 1,400 years, were widely distributed by that country’s government. This, in a country whose leading religious figure in 2015 called for Christian churches in neighbouring countries to be destroyed.
What has changed to make this possible? It is the accession to power of a Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has openly spoken of his wish for Saudi Arabia to be “a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe”. It is not quite clear exactly what this will mean in practice for the country’s 2.1 million or so Christian residents, many of them domestic workers, who cannot at present legally worship. But it can only be good news.
For this is a man quite capable of delivering radical change. Already the feared religious police have been deprived of their powers of arrest. And of course, women will be allowed to drive. What is more, some top Islamic religious scholars have been put into detention – a signal that the Saudi ruling family now feels confident enough to face down its famously intolerant clergy. Imagine if Saudi Arabia’s huge wealth swung behind a more liberal vision of Islam, instead of the opposite. It is not impossible.
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