For the first time in history, Saudi Arabia has entered into a joint agreement with the Vatican to build churches for Christians living in the officially Muslim nation.
The agreement was signed by the Secretary General of the Muslim World League Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdel Karim Al-Issa and the President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue in the Vatican, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, according to a report Wednesday from the Egypt Independent newspaper.
The Financial Express has reported that Saudi Arabia’s newfound openness to and socio-cultural cooperation with the non-Muslim world stems from a desire to reduce dependency on oil resources, its primary economic driver.
Cardinal Tauran visited Riyadh on April 16-20, where he was received at the royal palace by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who acts as the country’s prime minister as well as the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and his son, the crown prince Muhammad bin Salman. Tauran and his delegation also visited the Center for the Fight against Extremist Thought, and met with the current Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh.
In his address to Saudi officials, Tauran made mention of the “hundreds of thousands of Christians in the Saudi Kingdom,” insisting that Pope Francis follows their situation “with close attention.” The cardinal also reiterated the Vatican position on the equal treatment of all citizens regardless of their religion, including those who do not profess any religion, and called for establishing a common basis for the construction of centers of worship.
Fruit of the cardinal’s visit was the joint agreement that provides for the building of churches to care for the needs of Christians in Saudi Arabia as well as underscoring the key role of religions in renouncing violence, extremism, terrorism and achieving security and stability in the world.
The new accord also calls for the establishment of a coordinating committee with two representatives from each side to organize future meetings. The committee is expected to meet every two years, alternating between Rome and a city chosen by the Islamic World League.
Saudi Arabia is currently the only country in the region without a single Christian church, after Qatar opened a church in March. Saudi Arabia embraces Islamic Wahhabism, which bans all forms of non-Muslim religious activities.
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