Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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“Destroy all the Churches”

by Elliott Abrams
March 15, 2012

Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, the Kingdom's grand mufti, prays during the funeral of the Saudi woman and her daughter who were killed in Chad, at the Grand Mosque in Riyadh February 6, 2008 (Courtesy REUTERS/Ali Jarekji). Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, the Kingdom's grand mufti, prays during the funeral of the Saudi woman and her daughter who were killed in Chad, at the Grand Mosque in Riyadh February 6, 2008 (Courtesy REUTERS/Ali Jarekji).

The Middle East Forum reports that

According to several Arabic news sources, last Monday, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, declared that it is “necessary to destroy all the churches of the region.” The Grand Mufti made his assertion in response to a question posed by a delegation from Kuwait: a Kuwaiti parliament member recently called for the “removal” of churches (he later “clarified” by saying he merely meant that no churches should be built in Kuwait), and the delegation wanted to confirm Sharia’s position on churches. Accordingly, the Grand Mufti “stressed that Kuwait was a part of the Arabian Peninsula, and therefore it is necessary to destroy all churches in it.

This report brought back memories of a trip to Saudi Arabia that I took in January 2001, before joining the Bush Administration. I travelled there as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the delegation (which included Cardinal McCarrick) met with government officials and religious authorities.  To several, we made the argument that as Saudis claim to value religious faith and practice so deeply, surely they could understand the terrible hardship they were creating for the many Christians who lived in the Kingdom by forbidding them to worship. They can worship at home, came the reply (somewhat disingenuously, for we knew that the religious police often broke up such private religious services). That isn’t enough, we argued, especially for Roman Catholics whose religion includes the sacraments that only a priest can administer. And there are roughly a million and a half Catholics, mostly Filipinos, here in Saudi Arabia, we said. Too bad, came the reply; they knew our rules before they came, and the rule is no religion other than Islam in Arabia. No churches. Period.

Well, we noted, there are churches in every other country on the Arabian Peninsula: Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE. You are the only exception. Are you suggesting that all those churches should be closed? Yes, came the reply. Every one of them.

So the reported statement by the Grand Mufti came as no surprise to me. Nor is it a surprise, considering his interpretation of Islam, that the religious police make it so difficult for Christians even to worship privately, in their homes. In a better world, the UN Human Rights Council would be denouncing these violations of freedom of religion, as would the whole Organization of Islamic Cooperation—given that Saudi Arabia is the only one of its 57 member countries that absolutely bars churches. In the world in which we actually live, denunciations of the Saudis for this are almost non-existent.

To give credit where it is due, the U.S. Government, in the latest International Religious Freedom report issued by the State Department, honestly states that “Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and is severely restricted in practice….The government officially does not permit non-Muslim clergy to enter the country to conduct religious services, although some do so under other auspices and are able to hold services. These entry restrictions make it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with clergy. This is particularly problematic for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, whose faiths require that they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis.”

This is not as frank as some of the earlier Bush Administration human rights reports, which until 2005 stated flatly that “Freedom of religion did not exist” in Saudi Arabia. The Grand Mufti’s statement ought to be widely denounced around the world, and won’t be—a scandal and a shame.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by Ahmad Ali

    There are a lots of Christian folk in Saudi from Kerela, who conduct all sort of Xian activity in their premises. I have a family living here whose husband lives and conducts all Christian occasions in their homes and I have seen their pictures with priest. There is official ban but people seem to practice their faith without problems in Saudi.Obviously, worship to images is banned in the Kingdom having eradicated its need 1400 years ago.

  • Posted by neville craig

    As someone who made many visits to the Kingdom 1990-1998, in the cause of international business, and was obliged on the entry form to describe himself as a ‘Christian’ (raised a serious Presbyterian, but lapsed), I would suggest there is a need to avoid elephantine steps on this, or many Christians might just be expelled, such as fecund Philippinos who need the work.

    I recall a US contribution to ‘cultural’ understanding when it was discovered that the Pepsi Inc bottling plant in Damman had a resident Philippina masquerading as a man…keep the workers happy I say. Just after GWI I would see female GIs in the street with their hair almost tucked up inside their military headgear…

  • Posted by Alvin Mullins

    Why don’t we just say we are friendly with the Saudis who promote the killing of Christians as much as the Iranians do because they give us oil. We have a President who is equally anti-Christian and stops all efforts for us to become oil independent.

  • Posted by Peter T.

    Hmm, it appears that the kingdom lacks a “Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.”

  • Posted by george

    There should be reciprocity: Saudi wants to destroy churchs, mosques in the West should also be destroyed!!!
    Wahabism (islam in Saudi Arabia) is, in fact, the biggest threat for the free world. They are so fanatic.. They seek to take over the world (with their petrodallars) and return it to their 10th century way of life by imposing the Charia they already have in their country.
    Wahabism should be STOP!!!!

  • Posted by Nannie Gutjahr

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  • Posted by David Drury

    Thank you, Mr. Abrams, for your writings. I’ve perused many today as Irinia Faskianos directed me your way in preparation for the Religion and Foreign Policy Summer Workshop starting tomorrow night.

    Keep up the good work.

    -David Drury
    Chief of Staff
    Office of the General Superintendent
    The Wesleyan Church

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