After Holding a New Orthodox Mass, Is MBS Going to Build Churches in Saudi Arabia?

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After its official celebration of Christmas on January 7, 2023, the Egyptian Orthodox Church announced, three weeks later, that it had held another mass on this occasion in Saudi Arabia, with “the full sponsorship of the kingdom’s authorities.”

The Church confirmed on January 30, 2023, in light of the good relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Pope Tawadros II commissioned Anba Marcos to visit the Egyptian Copts residing in the kingdom.

It indicated that this visit lasted for a month, ending with the Christmas Eve Mass, according to the Eastern calendar, on the evening of January 6-7, 2023, for the first time in the history of the kingdom.

The Church also said that this visit is the ninth of Bishop Marcos to Saudi Arabia since 2015, which takes place every year, commissioned by Pope Tawadros.

There are no churches, and Christian group prayers were not officially allowed in the kingdom, but Christian foreigners were secretly praying in one of the halls.

Therefore, publicly and officially holding the liturgy by the Egyptian Orthodox Church is considered a new matter in the kingdom.

 

Whitewashing Through Religion

Despite the Church’s statement that Anba Marcos leading the prayer in Saudi Arabia in 2023 is the “first mass” in the kingdom, it is in fact the second event held by the Egyptian Orthodox Church there.

After the MBS meeting with Pope Tawadros at the Church’s headquarters in Egypt in December 2018, the Pope said that Bishop Anba Marcos “held the first mass there.”

In early December 2018, Watani newspaper, which represents the Egyptian Church, said that it held a prayer mass in Saudi Arabia for the first time, led by Bishop Marks, who supervises the Copts in the kingdom.

It confirmed that the prayer was held at the invitation of MBS after church leaders asked him to do so during his visit to Pope Tawadros at the St. Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassia in March 2018.

The newspaper noted that the prayer services took place in the house of a Copt in Riyadh and were attended by Coptic families in Saudi Arabia, and it was said that they took place in a private chalet in the presence of dozens of Copts.

On March 5, 2018, Pope Tawadros received Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to Egypt at the Papal Residence in Cairo.

This was his first foreign visit since taking office in June 2017; he invited Tawadros at the time to visit the kingdom.

Tawadros told the Saudi newspaper Ajel on March 12, 2018, that the Crown Prince invited him to visit his country when he informed him that the embassy did not grant a visa to Anba Marcos, although he visited it two years ago, so the Crown Prince offered him to visit the kingdom.

Tawadros confirmed that the Crown Prince made a “general invitation,” saying: “We would love to see you in Saudi Arabia,” but the Pope made it clear that this was “a verbal invitation, and in case of an official one, we will respond.”

MBS’s visit to the Coptic Church is the first of its kind since the establishment of Saudi Arabia in 1932. His father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, had previously met Pope Tawadros in April 2016 during his visit to Egypt.

When, for the first time, the kingdom allowed the Egyptian Church to hold a Christian mass in 2018, Isaac Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, described this step as propaganda.

He said that it comes in the context of the Saudi regime’s efforts to reintroduce and market itself through some reforms that it says are in order to open up to other cultures.

He explained to Alhurra website on December 2, 2018, that it is “a limited step that does not have a significant impact because there is no clear trend towards allowing religious freedoms and enabling non-Muslims to practice their rituals freely and in public.”

The media spokesman for the European Union of Coptic Organizations, Medhat Klada, described the organization of the first Coptic mass in Saudi Arabia in 2018 as “undoubtedly an attempt to whitewash the Saudi regime’s image, especially after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

A Saudi journalist told Al-Estiklal that ways to whitewash the reputation have spread in the kingdom since bin Salman assumed the mandate of the Covenant in 2018 due to the repression of all scholars, journalists, intellectuals, and businessmen.

He made it clear that MBS is manipulating the issue of establishing a church in the kingdom, whether for the Egyptian Orthodox Church or the Western Catholic Church, through conflicting statements and positions in order to present his regime as tolerant.

The journalist, who preferred not to be named, said that he became accustomed for the first time to seeing Christians walking publicly wearing crosses in the streets of Saudi Arabia. Even occasions of performing prayers increased in churches inside Christian homes that were previously being banned before repressing the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV).

In 2014, the CPVPV deported 12 Ethiopian Christians who were caught performing prayers in a house that was raided in Dammam after it learned that it was being used to hold church services, according to the US State Department’s religious freedom report.

However, with the rise of MBS to power, the kingdom gradually turned a blind eye to Christians practicing their prayers, and the CPVPV, which was preventing this, was singled out in 2016, according to Western reports.

 

Important Preparations

Saudi Arabia prohibits the building of churches, and this was officially announced by the former Saudi Minister of Justice, Muhammad Issa, during his meeting with European parliamentarians in Brussels on April 23, 2013.

He confirmed that his country would not allow the establishment of places of worship for non-Muslims on its territories.

However, it was remarkable after this that the first Egyptian public mass was held in 2018, when 25 American Christians, who were conducting the first Christian tour of the Queen in October 2019, gathered at the bottom of Jabal al-Lawz in Tabuk, northwestern Saudi Arabia, to pray.

At this American gathering, evangelical preacher Joel Richardson read aloud church hymns and passages from the Christian Bible.

Western newspapers described the scene in Jabal al-Lawz as illustrating the rapid social change taking place in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi journalist, who spoke anonymously to Al-Estiklal, said many foreigners working or visiting the kingdom are currently carrying out what resemble safari trips within the mountainous regions of the kingdom, and the authorities know that and maybe contribute to such arrangements.

He indicated that they are practicing Christian hymns and reading the Bible, accompanied by official tour guides.

In October 2018, a group of well-known evangelicals in the United States pressured bin Salman during their visit to build a church in Saudi Arabia.

With the crown prince opening up more, the demands for Christian tours on Saudi soil have increased since 2019.

Saudi supporters of the Crown Prince’s policies believe that the first Church may open in the city of Neom or in the Diplomatic Quarter, claiming that this will prove Saudi Arabia is among the civilized countries.

Business Insider website quoted Saudis as saying that building a church in the kingdom is “only a matter of time,” such as the Saudi academic Prince Abdullah bin Khalid Al Saud, who said: “Certainly, this will become true, especially in the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh or Neom.”

However, some believe that setting up a church in Neom would be meaningless, such as Saudi analyst Ali al-Ahmad, who told Business Insider that it would be a promotional public relations stunt because it is a remote place, and most Christians do not live in major cities like Jeddah or Riyadh.

Others suggested that a church be built in the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh under diplomatic cover, including the Catholic Bishop Paul Hinder, who was appointed by Pope Francis as an apostolic official for the Arabian Peninsula.

However, Saudi princes, who spoke to Business Insider, expected that the crown prince’s moves to inaugurate a church in the kingdom, even if it was in the city of Neom, would meet with real opposition from the people.

Business Insider indicates that bin Salman imposed almost complete repression on opponents through arbitrary arrests, spying at home and abroad, and assassinations and killings.

On the other hand, the Saudi journalist told Al-Estiklal that MBS would not dare to build a church because preventing the building of churches is one of the principles that is difficult for him to overcome popularly.