Western oil interests and a quest for Middle Eastern “stability” mean Saudi Arabia is welcomed as an ally of the so-called Christian West – a profound contradiction that ignores the country’s treatment of Christians and involvement in jihadist violence around the globe. The largely unquestioning support of Western governments for Saudi Arabia is an insult to Christ’s followers there who live in the shadow of death.
It is a capital offence for a Muslim to convert to Christianity in Saudi Arabia. Although none have been officially executed, as far as is known, some converts have been murdered by family members. The number of Saudi nationals who are Christians is unknown and even for foreigners it is not advisable or safe to be openly Christian in Saudi Arabia because it is illegal to manifest any religion publicly except Islam. There are hundreds of thousands of Christians among the estimated two million non-Muslim foreign workers in the kingdom. They are only able to worship in secret and even private gatherings are sometimes raided by religious police. Active believers, including Western expatriates, face potential deportation; non-Westerners can face imprisonment and torture.
In Saudi Arabia, no non-Muslim public buildings are permitted. In 2012, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, when asked about church buildlings in Kuwait, stated it was “necessary to destroy all churches in the region”, based on a hadith. The hadith (traditional record of Muhammad’s life and teachings) narrates that on his death bed Muhammad declared, “There are not to be two religions in the [Arabian] Peninsula.”
Following his death in 632, Muhammad’s successors followed his instruction to permit only Islam in the region. There is no mention of Christianity in Saudi Arabia in the historical records after 650.
In May 2018, a story claiming that the Saudi government had struck a deal with the Vatican to allow the construction of church buildings was widely reported in Western press, but later dismissed as fake news after the Vatican denied it and the Egyptian newspaper that broke the story retracted it.
Western support for Saudi Arabia
The modern nation of Saudi Arabia was formed by Ibn Saud in the 1920s, gaining recognition from the UK in 1927, although British politicians were well aware of the true nature of the regime. Earlier in the 1920s, Winston Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, had described daily life under the Saudis’ Wahhabi interpretation of Islam: “They hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions … Women have been put to death in Wahhabi villages for simply appearing in the streets … Men have been killed for smoking a cigarette.”
Today, Saudi Arabia is one of nine countries which formally include hudud punishments (meaning the penalty is specified in the Quran) within their legal system, but it is the country most frequently known for handing down sentences such as floggings and amputations. But for successive Western governments, the desire for a “friend” in the oil-rich region appears to have outweighed any scruples individual leaders might have about supporting Saudi Arabia. The ruling royal family has maintained a close relationship with Western governments, including agreeing lucrative arms deals and leasing military bases.
It is a tragedy that Western nations whose governments claim to be defenders of democracy and religious freedom ignore Saudi Arabia’s brutal repression of all religions other than Islam.
The Wahhabi movement founded in the 1700s by Abd al-Wahhab sought to purify Sunni Islam, returning to fundamentalist ideas emphasising the original interpretation of jihad (struggle) as a physical war against religious enemies. Wahhabism spawned ideology which has been adopted by Al Qaeda, which in turn shaped the birth of the Islamic State (IS) militant group. (It was IS that was responsible for ethnic cleansing and genocide of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, and also enslaved women and girl children, many of whom were sold on to the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia.) The ideology is spreading in Africa and its impact can be seen in several strongly Christian countries, including Ethiopia, Chad and Kenya.
Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahhabi jihadi ideology has profoundly changed the modern world and especially the Middle East. The country’s oil wealth has been used to fund mosques, charities and Islamic institutions worldwide, as well as radical Islamist groups. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks in the US were Saudi.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has provided funding for Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq and is widely thought to have directly aided Islamic State. In Yemen, it has helped Sunni government troops fighting Iranian-backed Shia Houthi forces in a civil war that has become the latest expression of Sunni Saudi Arabia’s proxy fight for dominance in the Middle East
Pursuing truth for persecuted Christians in the Middle East
In an era of fake news, when truth is often the first casualty of over-simplified Western media reporting, Christians should not unquestioningly accept the narrative of Western governments and media that excuses the near eradication of Christianity in Saudi Arabia. Neither should we ignore Saudi support for the spread of violent jihadism, which has brought terror to the West and aided Islamist groups who continue to target our brothers and sisters across the world.