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.
There are other factors, too. Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned about the spreading Iranian influence in Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement has steadily amassed political power and is now a formidable military force. When a patriarch last visited Saudi Arabia the Lebanese civil war was raging: Christians back then sought to retain dominance of the country which the post-World War I French colonial administration had designed for them. Now, they hold the office of president on Hezbollah’s sufferance. But the Christian loss of power does mean that they are less targeted, and less controversial. They can be sought out as allies, and that is probably what the Saudi Crown Prince was doing.
Two other major changes have happened in the past few decades. Christians have migrated in huge numbers to the Arab Gulf. Statistics compiled by an Emirati researcher show the Christian population of Iraq and Syria halving in number between 2006 and 2016. In all the countries of the Arab Gulf, it increased. It more than doubled in the United Arab Emirates, which now has 40 churches, many of which were built on land donated by the ruling families.
At the same time, the states of the Arab Gulf have become markedly more liberal in their religious attitudes. The opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi last month was not only about making Abu Dhabi a major tourism destination, but also about exposing the Emirati population to the cultures and ideas of other peoples. Seeing the Koran, Bible and Talmud side by side is a dramatic step forward. These traditionally conservative countries will not hasten to abandon laws against apostasy, or religiously forbidden behaviour. But attitudes to other faiths are being rapidly reshaped.
In part, this is because younger Arabs in these wealthier countries have had much greater exposure to Western culture. Having a younger and more self-confident figure at the forefront of Saudi policy-making has exposed this generational shift.
For Christians in the Middle East, this is no substitute for their ancient habitation in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, where they had citizenship, and permanence. They are not necessarily numerous among these Christians living in the Gulf (who are often Indian or Filipino). It is, though, a counter to the narrative of religious conflict which tends to be all that we hear from this turbulent – but not always gloomy – region.
Gerard Russell is a former diplomat, author of Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys among the disappearing religions of the Middle East, and director of Pall Mall Communications