Tuesday, November 06, 2007

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.


Blogger patrick neid said...

The Pope is just being a nice guy. If he really wanted to put the last straw on the camel, he could of said what the Church really thinks. "Look Abdullah, Mohammed was a false prophet and that makes you a heathen!"

11/06/2007 05:03:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

"Heathen". Now that's a word I haven't heard in a long time. The primary meaning of the word is that of a person who "does not acknowledge the God of the Bible", making it somewhat equivalent to the Muslim term "infidel".

But only somewhat. Interestingly enough it's unclear whether the term "heathen" applies to the Jews. An old issue of Time calls Jews who don't observe the Sabbath "heathen Jews". So presumably practicing Jews are not "heathen". It would be interesting to examine whether the word "heathen" ever applied to the Muslim, following the assertion that Islam is an Abrahamic religion. Maybe someone can enlighten me on the point.

But "heathen's" secondary usage is that of an "uncivilized" person, a somewhat looser term, less based on religion and more on culture. It would be interesting to see whether the word will return to currency. If it does then it might serve as a linguistic marker of the extent to which the clash of civilizations has become symmetric. When people introduce themselves again as "Christian men" and call certain others "the heathen" then some kind of cultural revolution would have taken place.

11/06/2007 05:40:00 PM  
Blogger deepinjuncountry said...

Most dictionaries define heathen as not being Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, as does the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology.

11/06/2007 06:02:00 PM  
Blogger deepinjuncountry said...


Czech: pohan, -ka; pohanský
Danish: hedning; hedensk
Dutch: heiden
Estonian: pagan
Finnish: pakana
French: païen, ïenne
German: der Heide, *die Heidin
Greek: ειδωλολάτρης
Hungarian: pogány
Icelandic: heiðingi; heiðinn
Indonesian: kafir
Italian: pagano
Latvian: pagāns
Lithuanian: pagonis; pagoniškas
Norwegian: hedning; hedensk
Polish: poganin, pogański
Portuguese (Brazil): pagão
Portuguese (Portugal): pagão
Romanian: păgân
Russian: язычник; языческий
Slovak: pohan, -ka
Slovenian: pogan(ski)
Spanish: pagano
Swedish: hedning
Turkish: putperest

11/06/2007 06:07:00 PM  
Blogger deepinjuncountry said...

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001 Douglas Harper

O.E. hæðen "not Christian or Jewish," merged with O.N. heiðinn. Historically assumed to be from Goth. haiþno "gentile, heathen woman," used by Ulfilas in the first translation of the Bible into a Gmc. language (cf. Mark 7:26, for "Greek"); if so it could be a derivative of Goth. haiþi "dwelling on the heath," but this sense is not recorded. It may have been chosen on model of L. paganus (see pagan), or for resemblance to Gk. ethne (see gentile), or may in fact be a borrowing of that word, perhaps via Armenian hethanos. Like other words for exclusively Christian ideas (e.g. church) it would have come first into Gothic, then spread to other Gmc. languages.

11/06/2007 06:10:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

'Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,
An' 'er name was Supi-Yaw-Lat jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen,
An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,
An' wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot:

Bloomin' idol made o' mud--
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd--
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed 'er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay ...

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there ain't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin', and it's there that I would be--
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea

11/06/2007 06:13:00 PM  
Blogger deepinjuncountry said...

I love Kipling—even if he was an Orangeman.

11/06/2007 06:23:00 PM  
Blogger The Wobbly Guy said...

Well, this atheist heathen doesn't think much of Christianity, but people should have the right to believe what they want. And comparing religions, there is little doubt right now that Christianity is a damn sight better than Islam. World would be a far better place if everybody's a moderate christian. It might be an even better place if everybody's an atheist, but I digress...

I wonder if the Phillipines government had ever said anything on this subject. A complaint to the UN would be interesting - non-white yet christian(Catholic!) 3rd world country protesting the treatment of its foreign workers. I think the multi-cultis would explode with the contradiction.

11/07/2007 12:17:00 AM  
Blogger boinky said...

there are other Christians in Saudi...a lot of the workers from India are from Kerala and are Catholics, as are many Lebanese, Palestinians, and Africans.

11/07/2007 02:55:00 AM  
Blogger dobson said...

How seriously do you expect King Abdullah will take your criticisms of his religious outlook? Every barrel of Saudi-Arabian oil that America buys is a vote of confidence in the Al-Saud regime. Why?

The fact that America continues to buy Saudi Arabia's only product tells the king that Americans really do not care all that much for religious liberty as long as the black-stuff keeps pumping.

Face the facts - unless you guys live on a self-sufficient wind-farm, you guys are the folks who've been financing King Abdullah's religious repression.

11/07/2007 03:48:00 AM  
Blogger herb said...

All of this discussion revolves around the Mohammedan concept of the ineffectual allah. If their deity was so great he could not be affected by the comments of a mere kaffir.

If the ideas underlying their theology were really so great, they would be willing to let others compete for the souls of their people. Its all really sort of pathetic.

I have a great friend who, in a sermon on the Sunday after 9/11 referred to islam as a pagan religion. In my western tolerance I was shocked. As I have looked into it over the past several years, I think he was right.

11/07/2007 06:21:00 AM  
Blogger herb said...

"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."

Well I suppose that the death penalty for conversion does deter one from regular public Mass.

11/07/2007 06:26:00 AM  
Blogger dobson said...

I have a great friend who, in a sermon on the Sunday after 9/11 referred to islam as a pagan religion. In my western tolerance I was shocked. As I have looked into it over the past several years, I think he was right.

No, most definitely wrong. Islam follows in the Abrahamic tradition but unlike Christianity retains a great deal of traditional Jewish law. Of the three Abrahamic religions Christianity is the odd one out.

But seriously, it's so silly to indulge in this kind of name-calling. A Muslim might equally use precisely the same arguments that you have just used to justify their own beliefs.

11/07/2007 06:27:00 AM  
Blogger dobson said...

Well I suppose that the death penalty for conversion does deter one from regular public Mass.

Having lived some time in Saudi Arabia, I can confirm that this is the case. Saudi-Arabia is a deeply tribal culture where 99% of the political power & wealth is held by a single tribe who have their own "state" religion.

Less than half a century ago the Al-Saud family were what you might call a band of "warlords" - one of many warring tribes who managed to seize control over the valuable cities and oil-fields. To some extent Saudi-Arabia is still run by the same kind of people as it was when the Saudi kingdom was being formed.

In any case, there are no Churches in Saudi-Arabia, at least not the sort with clearly visible buildings. In my entire time there I never encountered any missionary activity or overt Christianity. I guess they all went elsewhere.

11/07/2007 06:32:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

What's the bottom-line take on Abdullah's dance around the West? Is he seriously trying to proselytize the Pope and Queen Elizabeth? Is he trying to prove that Saudi's and Muslims are both human being and need to be cut a little slack? Or is it for the home folks back in the Sandbox, to prove that he is as great a leader as anyone on earth, since he can get a dinner or a lunch with anyone in a position of authority he chooses to call?

11/07/2007 09:12:00 AM  
Blogger Mike W said...

Neither the Pope nor the government of any largely Catholic country will say anything about this crap. They will keep their counsel for the sake of the many dhimmi Christians in Islam's malign grip, potential objects (vide recent history) of the whimsical psychoses of jihad. And to call Islam heathen is an insult to heathens. Far from being a systematic development of earlier tradition, the Koran is an illiterate syncresis of pagan, Jewish and Christian sources.

11/07/2007 11:12:00 AM  
Blogger Dawnfire82 said...

"Every barrel of Saudi-Arabian oil that America buys is a vote of confidence in the Al-Saud regime."

Then every Pepsi a Hezb Allah gunman drinks, every Dell an Al-Qaeda cell leader uses, and every Ford a Mahdi Army militiaman buys is a vote of confidence in America?

11/08/2007 12:33:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Powered by Blogger