Saturday 24 March 2018

Saudi king opens door to Catholic Church

Richard Owen in Rome

The Vatican is believed to be holding talks with Saudi authorities over opening the first Roman Catholic church in the Islamic kingdom, where Christian worship is banned and even to possess a Bible, rosary or crucifix is an offence.

The disclosure came the day after the first Catholic church in Qatar was inaugurated in a service attended by 15,000 people and conducted by a senior Vatican official.

The Vatican and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations. However, Archbishop Paul-Mounged El-Hachem, the Papal Nuncio to Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, Yemen and Bahrain, said moves towards diplomatic ties were under way after a visit to the Vatican last November by King Abdullah.

This would involve negotiations for the "authorisation of the building of Catholic churches" in Saudi Arabia, he said.

The move would amount to a potential revolution in Christian-Muslim relations, since Saudi Arabia adheres to a hard-line Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam and is home to Mecca and Medina, the most holy sites of the religion. No faith other than Islam may be practised.

Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said: "If, as we hope, we reach an agreement authorising the construction of the first church in Saudi Arabia, it will be a step of historic importance."

Saudi religious police search the homes of Christians regularly; even private prayer services are forbidden. Foreign workers have to observe Ramadan but are not allowed to celebrate Christmas or Easter.

Of the Saudi Arabian population, 94pc are Muslim and less than 4pc -- nearly a million people -- are Christian. (© The Times, London)

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