Saudi Arabia’s top Muslim leader recently issued a religious decree calling for all Christian churches on the Arabian peninsula to be demolished, a move that elicited protests from the U.S. government and undermines recent efforts in the kingdom to promote interfaith tolerance.
Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh issued the fatwa, or Muslim religious decree, on March 11, although government-controlled media in the country so far have not reported it.
A U.S. official said the mufti’s fatwa is causing embarrassment for King Abdullah because al-Shaikh is said to be closely aligned to the king and ruling royal family.
Some observers note that the fatwa could put the mufti at odds with the monarch.
Also, King Abdullah recently sought to develop interfaith dialogue centers in Europe. The anti-Christian edict is undermining those efforts.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue of the fatwa during a meeting with the king March 30.
A State Dept. official declined to comment when asked if the fatwa was raised during the meetings, but said "issues of religious freedom and tolerance were raised in the secretary’s bilateral meetings in Riyadh."
According to State Department officials who briefed reporters on the March 30 meeting between Clinton and the king, Clinton discussed the plight of women in Saudi Arabia during her 1 hour and 40 minute talk.
The meetings included discussion of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear defiance, Syria’s revolution, Yemen, oil, and "reform in the Kingdom, including the role of women," a senior State Department official said after the meeting.
According to Arabic press reports, the mufti made the comments to members of Kuwait’s parliament, stating that building any new churches in the Arabian Peninsula is forbidden under Islamic law. He then went on to state that all existing churches in the region should be demolished, according to Kuwait’s Arabic newspaper Al-Anba.
The comments followed a Kuwaiti government official’s call for ban on construction of new churches.
The Muslim cleric’s edict is likely to cause a further rupture with the West, which widely views Saudi Arabia as a breeding ground for Muslim terrorists. Fifteen of the 19 suicide aircraft hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks were Saudi nationals.
According to reports from the region, Christian leaders in Europe have condemned the fatwa and called on Riyadh to explain the religious ruling.
Reuters reported that Christian bishops in Germany, Austria, and Russia criticized the cleric’s edict as a denial of human rights and religious freedom to millions of foreign workers in the Persian Gulf.
Archbishop Mark of Yegoryevsk, head of the Russian Orthodox department for churches abroad, described the fatwa as "alarming" in a statement March 20. The criticism by mainstream Christian leaders of their Islamic counterparts is rare.
Austrian bishops also asked the Saudi government to explain the fatwa because of King Abdullah’s plans to open a center for interfaith dialogue in Austria.
The grand mufti is the most senior religious law official in the Sunni Muslim kingdom. He also heads the Supreme Council of Ulema, or Islamic scholars, and the Standing Committee for Scientific Research and Issuing of Fatwas.
The mufti’s remarks followed an announcement on Twitter by Kuwaiti parliamentarian Osama Al-Munawer that he planned to submit a draft law that would ban all churches in the country.
Al-Munawer later clarified the comment by saying existing churches should be permitted to remain but that a ban should be imposed on the building of new, non-Islamic houses of worship.
The banning of Christian churches and destruction of the existing ones would represent a more extreme form of Islam than existed in the past when Christians and Jews were free to practice their faith openly in the region.
There are large numbers of Christians in Egypt and Lebanon.
Hardline Islamists are demanding that only Islam be allowed in the region.
The State Department’s annual report on religious liberty said there were no comprehensive numbers of Christians in Saudi Arabia, but that at least 1 million Roman Catholics reside in the country, mainly among the estimated 12 million foreign workers.
"Freedom of religious assembly is severely limited [in Saudi Arabia], because the government does not allow individuals to publicly assemble based on religious affiliation," the most recent State Department religious freedom report says. "This freedom is also limited in other ways, including the government's hindering of the establishment and maintenance of non-Sunni places of worship."
Additionally, the report said, "Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, occasionally used anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and anti-Shiite language in their sermons."
The report also noted that the government’s official policy of allowing private religious worship for all, including non-Muslims, is not followed in practice.