There are no churches in Saudi Arabia and Christians have to meet in secret. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
There are no churches in Saudi Arabia and Christians have to meet in secret. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

A senior Vatican official told Saudi officials during a visit last week that Christians must not be treated as second-class citizens.

“During my meetings, I insisted very much on this point, that Christians and non-Muslims are spoken of well in schools and that they are never considered second-class citizens,” the French cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran told Vatican Radio, according to press agency Reuters.

Despite promises to ban extremist ideologies from schools and universities, Saudi textbooks were found recently to still promote hatred toward religious minorities, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The cardinal, who is head of the Vatican’s Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, was the first Catholic to visit the current Saudi leadership, and met with both King Salman and his son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

The latter has been pushing a reform agenda in the conservative Kingdom, by lifting restrictions on women and pledging a more “moderate” Islam.

“In the wake of the horrors committed in the region by ISIS, the Saudis want to build a more humanist image for themselves,” Christian Lochon, an academic at the University of Paris II, told the Catholic news site International La Croix.

As World Watch Monitor has reported, the question remains if the changes will also ease the situation for members of non-Islamic faiths, but, according to Lochon, “you don’t send someone of the level of Cardinal Tauran if there is nothing concrete ready to be implemented”.

No church buildings at present

This was the latest of a string of recent meetings between the Crown Prince and Christian leaders in the past few months.

The Crown Prince was in London just last month, where he met with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and promised to promote interfaith dialogue.

Prior to that visit, he had visited close ally Egypt and met the leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, in Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral.

The Lebanese Maronite Patriarch, Bechara Boutros al-Rai, also visited the Kingdom in November last year.

At present, there are no church buildings in the overwhelmingly Muslim desert Kingdom, where leaving Islam is technically punishable by death, even if this is rarely implemented.

Saudi Arabia ranks 12th on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.

According to Open Doors there are roughly 1.4 million Christians in Saudi Arabia – mostly foreign workers of Asian, African or Western origin – who have to meet in secret.