The headline was startling: “Pope Tawadros and Saudi ambassador agree to open Saudi Arabia’s first church.”
The report would be historic since by law, no church buildings are allowed in Saudi Arabia, where Islam is the only religion permitted. Tawadros is the leader of Egypt’s 1.5 million Coptic Christians.
“A reliable source has told Mideast Christian News that Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of Saint Mark’s Episcopate, has reached an agreement with the Saudi ambassador in Cairo, Ahmed Kattan, to establish the first church ever built inside Saudi Arabia,” wrote Irin Moussa of Mideast Christian News.
The Coptic pope meets with the Saudi ambassador (MCN Photo)
“The source said that Pope Tawadros was extremely happy upon his return to the Cathedral in Al-Abbasiya, where he met with a German parliamentary delegation after the end of his first visit to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia,” wrote Moussa.
“MCN was told that the Pope thanked the King of Saudi Arabia and the current government for their approval to build the first church, which will be Coptic, and for the warm welcome from the Saudi ambassador in Cairo. The source added that at the meeting, the two leaders also discussed consolidating relations between the Church and Saudi Arabia, especially after the king of Saudi Arabia pledged to send aid to Egypt after the revolution of June 30. His Holiness also expressed his condolences for the victims of the recent fire in a Medina hotel.
“There are many Egyptian Copts in Saudi Arabia, and there are also more than a million Christians from Southeast Asia, particularly from the Philippines.”
Indeed, the Catholic community in Saudi Arabia is overseen by the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia and has its own bishop, Camillo Ballin. However, he is not allowed to set foot in Saudi Arabia – instead has his offices at the Holy Family Cathedral in Kuwait.
Kuwait’s Holy Family Cathedral (Wikimedia photo)
The existence of that church has been an irritation to the Saudis. In 2012, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia declared that all churches in the Arabian Peninsula must be destroyed.
“Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah made the controversial statement in a response to a question from a Kuwaiti delegation,” reported the Russian news agency Novosti. “The Grand Mufti, who is the highest official of religious law in Saudi Arabia, as well as the head of the Supreme Council of Islamic Scholars, cited the Prophet Mohammed, who said the Arabian Peninsula is to exist under only one religion.
“The Sheikh went on to conclude that it was therefore necessary for Kuwait, being a part of the Arabian Peninsula, to destroy all churches on its territory.”
Ironically, the oldest church building in the world, the 4th century Jubail Church is located in Jubail, northern Saudi Arabia. “It was
discovered in 1986,” reports the website Above Top Secret. “The government hides it from locals and bans foreigners from visiting it, even archaeologists. It is an ancient Assyrian church possibly of the Nabatean culture.
The Jubail ruins (Photo by Robert McWhorter/Wikimedia)
“In 1986, people on a desert picnic discovered the ruins of a church near the city of Jubail, Saudi Arabia, while digging one of their trucks out of the sand. The church is believed to have been built prior to A.D. 400, making it older than most churches in Europe. It was likely associated with one of five bishoprics existing on the shores of the Arabian Sea during the term of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople and founder of the heresy that bears his name.