VATICAN IN SECRET TALKS TO BUILD CATHOLIC CHURCHES IN SAUDI ARABIA
The Vatican and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations. However, Archbishop El-Hashem said that moves towards diplomatic ties began after an unprecedented 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.
"But, speaking to the news agency Agence France-Presse, the Lebanese prelate, the Pope's envoy in the Gulf, added: "There are around three or four million Christians in Saudi Arabia, and we hope they will have churches."
At the Vatican, the Pope's spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said: "If we manage to obtain authorisation for the construction of the first church, it will be an outcome of historic dimensions."
The opening last Friday of the first church in Qatar left Saudi Arabia as the only country in the region that still bans the building of churches and all forms of open Christian worship. However the construction of even one church on Saudi territory would outrage Islamist militants.
"The move would amount to a potential revolution in Christian-Muslim relations, since Saudi Arabia adheres to a hardline 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.
"Saudi Arabia the homeland of Islam's holiest sites and is considered sacred ground to Muslims.
"Saudi religious police search the homes of Christians regularly; even private prayer services are forbidden in practice. Foreign workers have to observe Ramadan but are not allowed to celebrate Christmas or Easter.
"La Stampa, the Italian daily, said that the talks would have been “unthinkable” until recently. The way was paved by King Abdullah's talks with the Pope and by the recent setting up of a permanent Catholic-Muslim forum to repair relations between the two faiths after the Pope's controversial remarks on Islam at the University of Regensburg in 2006.
"Of the Saudi Arabian population, 94 per cent are Muslim and less than 4 per cent - nearly a million people - Christian, nearly all of them foreign workers. The last Christian priest was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1985.
"Qtar, which hopes to bid to host the Olympic Games in 2016, has approved five churches for other Christian denominations, including the Anglican Communion.
— Saudi laws do not recognise or protect freedom of religion. Non- nationals are severely restricted in practising different faiths
— Missionaries are banned and face imprisonment if caught. Sunni Muslims face severe repercussions from the Mutawwain, or religious police, for breaking Muslim law
— The official policy of allowing non-Muslims to worship freely at home is not reliably enforced
— In the courts, once fault is determined, a Muslim receives all of the amount of compensation determined, a Jew or Christian half, and all others a sixteenth
Compiled from various news sources