Out of the Catacombs
Referring to that which is not. The Associated Press reports on Pope Benedict told Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah during his visit to Saudi Arabia.
Pope Benedict XVI lauded the contributions of Christians in Saudi Arabia—a kingdom that embraces a strict version of Islam, restricts worship by other faiths and bans Bibles and crucifixes—in the first meeting ever Tuesday between a pope and reigning Saudi king. ... The Vatican counts 890,000 Catholics, mainly guest workers from the Philippines, among the estimated 1.5 million Christians in Saudi Arabia. Christians are barred from opening churches in the desert kingdom where Islam's holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, are located.
"The Vatican authorities expressed their hope for the prosperity of all the inhabitants of the country, and mention was made of the positive and industrious presence of Christians," said the Vatican communique on the meetings, referring in diplomatic language to the religious plight of non-Muslims in the kingdom.
It is forbidden to practice Christianity publicly inside Saudi Arabia, and it is illegal to bring symbols from religions other than Islam into the country. Bibles and crosses are confiscated at the border. Some Christian worship services are held secretly, but the government has been known to crack down on them, or deport Filipino workers if they hold even private services.
King Abdullah had a message for the Pope too.
At the end of the meeting, Abdullah presented Benedict with a traditional Middle Eastern gift—a golden sword studded with jewels—and a gold and silver statue of a palm tree and a man riding a camel. The pope admired the statue but merely touched the sword.
The Vicariate of Arabia contains the largest secret church in the world today. Monsignior Paul Hinder, Auxiliary Bishop of Arabia compared the condition of Christians in Saudi Arabia to those in the early church. The total population of the Kingdom was estimated at 27 million, including 5.5 million resident foreigners of which 1.5 million were secret Christians, about 5.5% of the population.
the situation of the Church in Saudi Arabia is similar to that of early Christian communities. It is a Church that prays, that hopes one day to come out of the catacombs, a Church that is in the hands of capable laypeople at the helm of basic communities.
What is life in the secret church like? The website Open Doors describes how it operates in practice. The chore of hiding becomes more onerous depending on your station. For the high-end expatriates it may only constitute a minor inconvenience. For the poverty-stricken Filipino laborer it can be grief indeed.
there are three 'layers' of churches in Saudi Arabia:
- the 'tolerated fellowships' on compounds and in embassies;
- the underground evangelical house groups meeting in private homes;
- and the secret believers who do not meet in larger groups.
The gatherings on compounds and in embassies are more or less formal, but they can only happen when Christians keep a low profile and allow no Saudis to join their meetings. Christians in Saudi Arabia have stated that their underground, expatriate church is strong. It has to be admitted, though, that this church is not rooted in the country. There are no believers with Saudi citizenship in these churches. Saudis who have converted often want to stay secret, they never meet in larger groups. This means that there is very little contact between local and expatriate Christians.
Apart from this problem, most expatriate believers stay for only a few years. The underground congregations are very mobile, often turning over completely in about five years time. This has an advantage as it makes them more difficult to track down for the Mutawwa'in. The vast majority of the expatriate Christians in Saudi Arabia have no desire to reach out or get involved in evangelistic activities. It was not the aim of their coming to Saudi Arabia. Most of the expatriates are hard, materialistic, isolated and frustrated.
The Open Doors description would be mildly interesting as an historical document. Yet it is not an historical document, but rather a portrait of Saudi society as it exists today, despite the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose last paragraph ought to read "not valid outside Western Civilization" or "for display purposes only". I think the existence of the underground Christian church in Saudi Arabia is largely ignored by the media because most of dodging and hiding is suffered by the lower tier expatriate workers, like the Filipinos and other Third Worlders who not only make up the bulk of the Christians but the majority of real victims. Nobody cares about them. Not now. Probably not ever, with the possible exception of Him to whom they pray.
What the AP article does not describe is the constant pressure on Filipinos working in Saudi Arabia to convert to Islam. This pressure can take the form of material inducement in guise of a better labor contract. If any illegal alien in the United States were subjected to the pressure that legal aliens face in Saudi Arabia to change their beliefs the UN would be outraged, incensed, indignant and all but apopletic. As it is they are mildly incurious. The Rajah Soliman Brigade of terrorists in the Philippines is said to consist largely of these Christian converts to Saudi Islam. Maybe that's what the sword given to Pope Benedict signified. If the Pope had not brought up the verboten and impolitic subject of Christians in Saudi Arabia many people might never have heard of the unpersons of the modern world.