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Is there any hope of Saudi Arabia lifting its church ban?

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, HRH Mohammed bin Salman, arrives for a private meeting at Lambeth Palace hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (Getty Images)

Today is Friday, the end of the three-day visit of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to London. It is also the Saudi holy day. If he so wished, MbS was free to attend worship at any number of mosques in the capital. When Prime Minister Theresa May, a clergyman’s daughter and practicing Christian, made her visit to Riyadh the only option open to her would have been the inter-denominational service held on Fridays at the British Embassy in Riyadh under diplomatic cover. Perhaps it was fortunate her visit had taken place on a Wednesday.

Over the past three days, MbS has heard a lot of voices clamouring for his attention. Trade deals, human rights, strategic initiatives, terrorism concerns, a stock exchange listing, all vying for responses. Tucked in amongst all these was the plaintive voice of the Archbishop of Canterbury pleading for the Saudi’s to lift the ban on the practice of other religions. Lambeth Palace stated “The archbishop shared his concern about limits placed on Christian worship in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and highlighted the importance for leaders of all faiths to support freedom of religion or belief.” Hopefully the dialogue was two-sided, but it was left to Lambeth to relate what MbS said, “the crown prince made a strong commitment to promote the flourishing of those of different faith traditions, and to interfaith dialogue within the Kingdom and beyond.”

My advice to the Archbishop is not to hold his breath, but given all the appetite for reforms then perhaps it was worth asking? The problem is that the religious ban doesn’t do much for MbS domestically, and while it may placate international voices the fact is the international lobbyists don’t really care that much about religion either. Human rights generally, gender, gay rights and the human tragedy in Yemen are higher up the list. However, these are trumped only by the arms and trade deals, which may, you never know, “influence” the Kingdom.

If there is a commitment from MbS that will be good, but we’ve been along this road many times before. In 1991 Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical letter “Redemptoris Missio” calling on Catholics to go out and spread Christianity in all parts of the world, highlighted countries where Islamic laws forbid proselytising. He urged Islamic countries to lift those laws as well as others that forbid Muslims to convert to another faith and where missionaries are refused entry. Significantly, this was the first encyclical since 1959 devoted to missionary activity; the issue was important then and nothing much has happened since.

In 2008, the Vatican held secret talks with the Saudi Arabian authorities on building churches in Saudi. Pope Benedict’s most senior Middle East representatives at the time, Archbishop Paul-Mounged El-Hashem, said: “Discussions are under way to allow the construction of churches in the kingdom. We cannot forecast the outcome,” adding “there are around three or four million Christians in Saudi Arabia, and we hope they will have churches.” Ten years later and they still don’t have churches, and many of them are being tossed out of the country anyway as expatriates are replaced by Saudis in the process of “Saudizing” the economy.

Saudi is a major funder of a meeting of representatives of Christian and Muslim communities from across the Arab region, held just a couple of weeks ago in Vienna (these things never happen in Basingstoke or Bognor Regis). Sponsored by the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), the meeting is a partnership between Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain. An earnest video talks about taking monumental steps, but glossy PR does not equate to monumental steps in anyone’s language. Lifting the relgious ban would be one, though.

What is common in all this is the use of the future tense. Committees “will be set up,” and “in the near future,” while actions plans “will be agreed.” We all know where the path of good intentions leads to. Should we throw the Lambeth statements onto the same religious slush pile? The platitudes are common too: religion and violence are incompatible, religions need to promote fraternity and peace, the phenomenon of fundamentalism needs to be combatted.

At least the meetings all end up agreeing on one thing: “We need to do something about it!” Yes, let’s hold a meeting in… fill in your own exciting location on the religious rallying route. Actually, why not save the costs, the environment, and hold a TV conference call? Meetings about meetings.

Perhaps this is too Augustinian a view. We should have more hope, what Aquinas called one of the “irascible passions” that direct our hope to a good that lies in the future, however hard to achieve. Will all this talk take us into the realm of possibility? Let’s hope so. After all, it is with a drop of water that the rain comes, though hopefully not the water of tears…there I go again!