Just this year, the Saudi Arabian government has issued a ban on all non-Muslim churches in the country (Clarke 17). Not only in the construction of churches, but also the destruction of those that already stand in Saudi Arabia. The government of Saudi Arabia recognizes all its citizens as Muslims, and therefore does not believe in the need to have Christian churches or those of other religions. Those who are not of the Islamic faith are at risk of suffering from persecution as the government is very strict on their laws about religion.
There are currently no official Christian churches in the country as of today as there is a ban in practicing religions other than those of the Islamic faith. There are a number of controversies regarding this issue, especially with people from the Catholic and Christian Orthodox religions who need service from a priest on a weekly basis. Currently, the hundreds and thousands of Christians in the country are without public records and do not possess citizenship. Although the official statement on the banning of all churches other than the Muslim mosques was only announced March of 2013, the prejudice against Christians and those practicing other religions is high (Mazrui 118). Currently, Saudi Arabia is ranked the second most dangerous place for Christians to travel to as it is possible to be put in jail for talking about Christianity, Jesus or God.
A lot of controversy surrounds the issue of the banning of Christian churches in Saudi Arabia, and there are political as well as religious factors that both play roles in the governmental decision of this ruling.
Even before the coming of Muhammad, a Muslim prophet, and the preacher of the Qur’an, Christian churches had been erected in Arabia years previous the 7th century (Langfeldt 32). The earliest churches were said to have been built in what is known today as Saudi Arabia. During these times, the land of Saudi was predominantly Christian. However between the 7th and the 10th Century, many were converted to the Islamic faith, those who weren’t were at risk of being banished from the land. In earlier times, non-Muslim citizens of Saudi were asked to pay Jizya, which was some sort of tax for those who didn’t practice the Islamic faith. They were also asked not to interfere with the preaching’s of the Islamic faith. The earlier tribes would only allow non-Muslim citizens who paid Jizya and met a certain criteria that would allow them fit to live with those who were of the Islamic faith. In return to this Jizya, the non-Muslim citizens were free to practice their faith, and they did not suffer from any kind of persecution.
These earlier times, when the Muslim tribes were small, the government was not ruled by a Muslim class (Langfeldt 32). However, over time, the government slowly started incorporating Muslim beliefs into their system. The Jizya was proof that there was a distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims. The tax paid was a sign of acceptance and subjection to the new state laws. It was a form of peace between religions and promised them protection outside the state’s aggression. However, the old Christian community went into conflict with some of the Jewish rulers in the area, that is why there was a depletion in those who practiced the Christian faith from southern Arabia to Yemen in the earlier centuries (Mazrui 118). Although today, there are more than a million Roman Catholics in the country of Saudi Arabia, most of them do not have citizenship. Many of these people are Filipino or Indian expatriate workers who are under a contract. Saudi Arabia allows Christians from all over the world to live in the country for temporary work, but not to stay as citizens. Although they are allowed to live there temporarily, they are not allowed to practice their faith openly, which means that Christians are generally limited to practicing their faith in secret.
The state declared that all items that promote Christianity are banned in the country. Bibles, rosaries, crucifixes and other religious symbols that are representative of the Christian faith are not allowed in Saudi Arabia, and those who do enter holding any kind of artifact that is considered Christian will be put in jail and persecuted. The country has a police department known as the Saudi Arabian Mutaween otherwise known as Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice are those that prohibit and control any practice of religion outside of Islam (Mazrui 118). The law also states that any person who converts or plans to convert a Muslim into another religion will be put to death. This is a crime that is considered apostasy if the accused does not recant for his or her doing. During the year 2001, many Christians protested the detention of other Christians in Saudi Arabia for practicing their religion inside their homes.
There is currently no building structure in which Christians can worship in. Governmental laws prohibit this. Although there is a concern internationally regarding the violation of Religious Freedom, the United States is seen to back up the laws regarding the banning of all Christian churches in Saudi Arabia. The country has raised a red flag for all Christians who want to enter the country. Because of this ruling, it is found that the government believes there is a necessity in destroying all Christian churches within the country. There is no provision for religious freedom on Saudi Arabian soil. The reason why the government has shut the doors on all other religions is because the Saudi Arabian government is controlled by the Islamic church. This means that the preaching and beliefs of the church go hand-in-hand with governmental decisions, much like what occurred in the Medieval times during the Catholic-Protestant reformations of the United Kingdom when church and state were one.
The decree in banning all Christian churches comes from religious roots as the Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh issued the fatwa (Mazrui 119). This is a decree that has religious roots and can become a governmental law. The decree which was issued on March was not reported by media in the country which was controlled by the government. This ruling could prove negative for the efforts of the King who was trying to establish interreligious dialogue throughout Europe. However, under Islamic law, it is forbidden to build any churches that did not promote the Islamic faith.
Although the law is said to be a governmental decision, it has strong religious roots (Yilmaz). The conversion of anyone from Islamic faith to any other faith is said to be punishable by death. This means that Christians who want to “spread the Word of God” or practice what their faith teaches them and preach about Jesus Christ and salvation are not in line with these laws. The government believes that anyone who does preach is violating their core beliefs, and is committing blasphemy on their soil. This is the main reason why it is not right to have Christian churches in a predominantly Muslim country where the church and state are seen to work together. The Sunni Islamic faith declares that people who are not of the Islamic faith are not citizens. Anyone in the state who is born of a Muslim father is considered Muslim himself, although it is not stated in any law that you require to become Muslim in order to hold a passport.
Since there is a law on conversion, which is punishable by death, and since it is the core of the Christian religion to spread their faith and talk about the word, it is not in line with the Islamic belief. There is no need for a Christian church or any other religious structure for a land that assumes all its residents are to follow one law. This means that anyone who is not Muslim will not be recognized by the government and will not receive the same amount of support from institutions that are controlled by the government.
Although religious freedom is almost non-existent in the country that ties Islamic faith with its governing laws, people are said to be allowed to practice their faith behind closed doors (Yilmaz). However, there have been numerous reports of people being put into jail for holding Christian meetings or those that are outside the Muslim faith. The government says to protect the rights of non-Muslims, however the practice of Christianity is not always respected in the country. The laws regarding no churches in Saudi Arabia are considered a decision by the government, but because of the ties between governmental decrees and religious constraints, it is hard to put a distinction between the influences of the decision.
The status of religious freedom lies in the monarchy and the government (Clarke 19). Because Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country where the Qur’an and the Sunnrah are incorporated into the constitution, it is difficult to separate religion and the government. This means that all laws under the Qur’an must be also applied to those in the government. Regardless of the country of origin, or the religion in which children are raised, if they were of Muslim fathers, children are considered Muslims. Although generally, private practice of religion is said to be allowed, there is still persecution amongst a number of Christian groups within the country, and they are forced to meet in private or perform their service over the internet where the government will not be able to see them.
The decision to have a government that is so tightly intertwined with the teachings of Islam are based on the interpretation of Salafi, which is also known as the Wahabi school of the Sunni (Yilmaz). This states that the Islamic faith and the government should not accept the separation from Islam, which also includes the state. Allowing a non-Islamic church on the soil goes against the teachings of this school. The legal system of the country is based on an Islamic law known as Sharia, which means that judgement is based on the code written in the Qur’an as well as the Sunnah. This states that every law in the Qur’an must be practiced by those who live in Saudi Arabia, a country which is ruled by an Islamic Monarchy.
Although the decision to ban Christian churches in the country was announced by a leader in the government, there are religious reasons behind this decree (Clarke 17). The country is ruled by Islamic leaders who want to keep their faith in line with their government. There is a school in Islamic faith which forbids the separation of the government and their religion, which means that if they are tolerant or even allow other churches on their soil, they are not following their religious teachings. Since Christianity and other religions which are based on the Christian Bible promote their religion by trying to “convert” others, the church under al Christian denominations must be banned as this does not go in-line with the teachings of the Qur’an. This is seen as blasphemy and is something that is punishable by death. There is a difficult line between religious intolerance and following their own faith (Yilmaz). Since Saudi Arabia’s government is so closely tied with the Islamic faith, it is difficult to have religious tolerance because their religion teaches them that it is wrong to convert to a different religion and that those of other religions are not considered equal.
Clarke, Gerard. "Faith-Based Organisations and International Development: An Overview'." Development, Civil Society and Faith-based Organizations: Bridging the Sacred and the Secular, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (2008): 17-45.
Langfeldt, John A. "Recently discovered early Christian monuments in Northeastern Arabia." Arabian archaeology and epigraphy 5.1 (1994): 32-60.
Mazrui, Ali A. "Islamic and Western values." Foreign Affairs (1997): 118-132.
Yilmaz, Ihsan. Muslim Laws, Politics and Society in Modern Nation States: Dynamic Legal Pluralisms in England, Turkey and Pakistan. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.