- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

ROME — The Vatican is negotiating with authorities in Saudi Arabia for permission to build the country’s first Roman Catholic church, sources in the Holy See said yesterday.

The move evidently heralds a major policy change toward the nearly 1 million Christians working in the unbendingly conservative Wahhabi kingdom.

Riyadh and the Holy See have been holding discreet discussions on the sensitive issue for several weeks and the two sides are “locked together,” said Archbishop Mounged El-Hachem, the papal nuncio, or Vatican ambassador, to the Persian Gulf states of Kuwait, Qatar, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.

A source in the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue confirmed the talks.

Saudi Arabia has not allowed members of non-Muslim faiths to practice their religions, even in private. The last Catholic priest discovered ministering clandestinely in the kingdom reportedly was expelled in 1985. Authorities justified the ban on churches on the ground of King Abdullah’s hallowed official role as custodian of two of the most sacred sites of Islam, at Mecca and Medina.

The newspaper La Stampa of Turin quoted the nuncio as saying the breakthrough was the result of an unprecedented meeting in the Vatican in November between Pope Benedict XVI and King Abdullah.

In another surprising development, the king on Monday made an impassioned plea for dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Vatican sources said the negotiations for a church to be built are based on the principle of reciprocity. Rome, the cradle of Catholicism, also is home to the largest mosque in Europe, built with Saudi money and opened in 1995.

Earlier this month, in what Vatican watchers see as a precedent for change in Saudi Arabia, the first church ever was inaugurated in Doha, the sand-swept capital of Qatar. Most of the 150,000 Christians in Qatar are from the Philippines and India, as are the 900,000 Christians thought to be working in Saudi Arabia.

The small Doha church, Our Lady of the Rosary, is discreet with no crosses or bell towers on the exterior. Mass is celebrated there in 14 languages.

Benedict has long been concerned about the plight of Christian minorities in the Muslim world and spoke of his sadness about the kidnapping and death earlier this month of the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Iraq, Monsignor Paolos Faraj Rahho.

The pope is expected to raise the question of the plight of the beleaguered Christians in the Middle East when he meets with President Bush during his U.S. visit next month. The issue is likely to be mentioned as well in a speech that the pontiff will give at the United Nations in New York, Vatican sources said.

Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia have risked arrest, deportation and prison if discovered observing non-Muslim religions, even celebrating Christmas, but are required to respect the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Some Filipinos in Riyadh were arrested recently for possessing and distributing the Bible, according to Amnesty International, and police on a daily basis search the homes of Christians, who are not allowed to wear crosses or other symbols of their faith.

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