Saudi Arabia is modernising, but will it include greater freedom for religious minorities?

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In April 2017, Buddhist monks led a protest near a church in Sri Lanka. This banner reads: "Why should there be a church when there are no Christians in the area?" (World Watch Monitor)
New freedoms for women in Saudi Arabia include being able to drive, visit sporting events, divorce, or even join the army (World Watch Monitor)

The political landscape in the strict Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is changing, and quickly. A charismatic crown prince seems determined to modernise his country and even speaks of a shift towards a more “moderate” Islam. But will the changes taking place in Saudi also ease the situation for members of non-Islamic faiths?

In Saudi Arabia, religions or traditions other than strict Sunni Islam enjoy little freedom. For Christians, no churches or Christian symbols of any kind are allowed anywhere. In theory, foreign Christians are permitted to organise their own, small-scale meetings, as long as they don’t cause any “disturbance”. However, raids on secret churches in private homes – sometimes called “house churches” – still occur, while Christian maids and nannies – many of whom are foreign citizens from countries such as the Philippines – are rarely allowed to leave their houses at all, making it impossible for them to go to church.

For native Saudis, meanwhile, becoming a Christian is almost impossible – at least openly. Apostasy from Islam is – in theory at least – punishable by death. In practice, most converts keep their newfound faith a complete secret from their families, for fear of being disowned, abused or even killed by their relatives. The huge social pressure makes it extremely difficult for the small number of indigenous Christians to meet, increasing their isolation.

‘Everything is changing’

Strict Wahhabi Islam has defined Saudi society for the last 40 years (World Watch Monitor)
Strict Wahhabi Islam has defined Saudi society for the last 40 years (World Watch Monitor)

A staff member at the Christian charity Open Doors International recently spoke with three foreign Christians in Saudi, who gave their perspectives on the changes taking place within the country. Their responses, given anonymously, were shared with World Watch Monitor.

“Change is in the air. That is for sure,” said one Christian, originally from the West, who compared the period with the Arab Spring that engulfed the Middle East at the start of the decade. “Everything is changing. Some people are more open to the Christian message, but others are radicalising.

“This is a crossroads. If it works, it will bring huge change and more freedom to this country. If it fails, Saudi might be the next Yemen – only worse. If the fundamentalists win the battle that is now being fought behind the curtains and spark a civil war, this place will go back to the dark ages. So, this is either going to be a huge [spiritual] awakening or it will be one of the biggest bloodbaths in history.”

But he added that political developments had at least shifted the focus away from Christians in Saudi, saying: “Christians are plankton compared to the whales that are now being hunted. So, they simply don’t have time to care. As long as [Christians] keep their heads low and don’t get themselves reported to the government, they will be fine.”

‘Nobody could carry a Bible’

The office of the Muttawah in Riyadh (World Watch Monitor)
The office of the Muttawah in Riyadh (World Watch Monitor)

A second foreign Christian in Saudi – an Indian pastor – said Christians’ lives had become easier since the Muttawah, Saudi’s religious police department, was stripped of its authority to make arrests in 2016.

“Before that, nobody could carry a Bible in the streets without getting arrested and harassed,” he said. “Now we can. Before, it was very dangerous for a non-Christian to visit a Christian meeting, but now there is less fear.”

He said that as Saudis and Indians don’t usually mingle, it remains unlikely that a Saudi Muslim would visit an Indian church service, “but the trend is that people are less fearful”.

‘Repression makes people question’

Another Christian, working and living in a rural part of the country, said he remains pessimistic about the effect of the crown prince’s new policies and warned of the effects of “too much change at once”.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (centre) will succeed his father King Salman (right) (World Watch Monitor)

“Change can lead to disruption. No-one knows what will happen if large groups of people start feeling left behind in their own country,” he said.

“But a repressive religious system can cause people to ask questions. Look at what is happening in Iran today: the more Christians are persecuted, the more the Church seems to grow. If Saudi would adopt a more moderate form of Islam, open to all sorts of ideas, that might actually be more difficult to turn away from than a very strict Islam.”

He said many Saudis have already turned their backs on the strict, fundamentalist Islam that defines the teaching in Saudi’s mosques, and that they still go to the mosque and pray, but only because it’s the cultural norm.

“A lot of Muslims here don’t like the Islam of the narrow-minded. Many ‘lukewarm’ Muslims are fed-up with the hypocrisy of it,” he said. “Many Saudis who turn into ‘lukewarm’ Muslims don’t start looking for other religions. They start living secular lives, focusing on getting a job, a family, kids and good vacations. Nothing to do with God.”

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