A Church in Saudi Arabia?

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Karim Jaafar / AFP / Getty

A cameraman films the first mass held at St. Mary's Roman Catholic church in Doha, Qatar, on March 15, 2008.

Interfaith dialogue has become an important exercise in finding the right words to overcome both extreme violence and ordinary misunderstanding. True progress, however, is best measured in deeds. The inauguration last week of Qatar's first Christian church — a small Catholic chapel bearing neither bells nor visible crosses — has been hailed as a welcome step forward in relations between Catholicism and Islam. But an even more dramatic development is under discussion just across the border: The Vatican has confirmed that it is negotiating for permission to build the first church in Saudi Arabia.

Presiding over the cradle of Islam and home to its holiest sites, the Saudi monarchy has long banned the open worship of other faiths, even as the number of Catholics resident in Saudi Arabia has risen to 800,000 thanks to an influx of immigrant workers from places like the Philippines and India. Mosques are the only houses of prayer in a country where the strict Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam dominates. But Archbishop Paul-Mounged El-Hachem, the papal envoy to the smaller countries on the Arabian peninsula, such as Kuwait and Qatar, has confirmed that talks are under way to establish formal diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Saudi Arabia, and to eventually allow for Catholic churches to be built there. Pope Benedict XVI is believed to have personally appealed to King Abdullah on the topic during the Saudi monarch's first ever visit to the Vatican last November.

Top Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that a Catholic parish in this key Islamic country would be "a historic achievement" in the push to expand religious freedom and foster a positive interfaith rapport. Under Benedict, the Catholic hierarchy has stepped up calls from its Muslim counterparts for "reciprocity," demanding that the same religious freedom enjoyed by Muslims in the West should be granted to Christian minorities in the Islamic world. They note that Europe's biggest mosque, built with Saudi funds, was opened in 1995 in Rome, just across the river from the Vatican.

Pope Benedict passionately condemned last week's death of Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, who was kidnapped on Feb. 29 in the northern Iraqi city. As many as 350,000 of the 800,000 Christians in Iraq before the war have since fled the country, while smaller but similar exoduses have occurred in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and other parts of the Arab world.

While Christians in those areas trace their roots to the earliest centuries of the faith, the Catholics in Saudi Arabia are mostly migrant workers. And the restrictions on any outward manifestation of their religious beliefs have been particularly severe. The celebration of non-Muslim holidays is forbidden, as is the wearing of crucifixes and other religious symbols.

Benedict has been seen as both stumbling block and catalyst in the search to improve relations between Christians and Muslims. His Septempber 2006 lecture at Regensberg University in Germany on the relationship between faith and reason, and how it might explain religiously inspired violence, included an offensive historical reference to the Prophet Muhammed. But after initial Muslim anger at his remarks cooled — and the Pope made a conciliatory visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul — there have been signs of a productive Catholic-Islam dialogue taking shape. Prominent Muslim and Christian clerics have exchanged messages expressing a mutual desire for better understanding, and Vatican officials last month announced the first in a series of high-level meetings with Muslims next November, which will include an appearance by Benedict.

In little-reported remarks just three months after his controversial speech in Germany, the Pope spoke of the challenge posed to Islam by a violent minority within its ranks. "The Muslim world today is finding itself faced with an urgent task. This task is very similar to the one that has been imposed upon Christians since the Enlightenment," Benedict said in a speech to officials of the Roman Curia. "On the one hand, one must counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations, thereby depriving man of his specific criteria of judgment. On the other, one must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognize these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion."

After Easter week, Benedict will no doubt be focusing on his next big speech, where some of the same themes may very well recur. On April 18, the pontiff arrives in New York to address the General Assembly of the United Nations.