Friday,14 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1385, (15 - 21 March 2018)
Friday,14 December, 2018
Issue 1385, (15 - 21 March 2018)

Ahram Weekly

A new openness

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s visit to the Coptic Cathedral, the first by a member of the Saudi ruling family, inevitably invited questions on the status of Copts in the Gulf kingdom, writes Michael Adel

 

Bin Salman and Tawadros II at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo this month
Bin Salman and Tawadros II at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo this month

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s visit to the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo where he met with Pope Tawadros II, Patriarch of the See of St Mark, was a major milestone in Saudi Arabia’s move towards modernisation and away from fundamentalist intolerance.

The visit naturally drew attention to the status and welfare of Copts living in Saudi Arabia. Anba Morcos, a Coptic Orthodox Church official, notes that the church continually monitors the welfare of Coptic Egyptian workers residing in Saudi Arabia. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly he said that he plans to visit Saudi Arabia soon, at the invitation of the crown prince.

He told the Weekly preparations are underway to conduct a census of Copts living and working in the kingdom. He stressed that Coptic workers in Saudi Arabia have few complaints concerning their living conditions or their treatment by Saudi officials, though they are concerned about the absence of a church to pray in.

Milad Youssef, an accountant working in Riyadh, told the Weekly that conditions for Coptic workers in Saudi Arabia were good.

“All Egyptians are accorded the rights stipulated by the Saudi Labour Bureau,” he said. “We only wish there were places where Christians could pray.”

In Saudi Arabia it is forbidden to carry any holy book except the Quran and expatriate Christians are barred from working in the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. But, says Youssef, under Crown Prince Bin Salman the kingdom has become more open. For the first time in the country’s history women are allowed to drive and there have been public concerts, including one featuring Egyptian pop star Tamer Hosni.

Bin Salman’s courtesy call on Pope Tawadros II must be seen within this wider liberalisation drive, says Kamal Zakher, an expert in Coptic affairs.  “That such an important symbol of the Saudi state took this step came as a challenge to Salafist thought and the extreme right in Saudi Arabia. This was not just a meeting in a religious institution. It was a new idea being planted in a country that has set itself on a course towards modernisation.”

Before Bin Salman’s visit, the highest level contact between Saudi Arabia and the Coptic Church was a visit the Saudi ambassador to Egypt paid to Pope Tawadros.

Zakher argues it is important to distinguish between the status of Copts in the kingdom before and after the crown prince’s visit.

“As far as their jobs are concerned Copts are treated well. But they have been prohibited from carrying any religious objects, including books and exegeses. This publicised regulation came into being due to the influence of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice which monitors whether or not people behave in accordance with religious strictures,” says Zakher.

“Crown Prince Bin Salman has introduced a number of measures to curtail the influence of the committee and reduce its sermonising in mosques and prevent meddling in people’s personal lives and beliefs. This is an important step towards liberalisation.”

Following Bin Salman’s visit to the Coptic Cathedral it may not be long, says Zakher, before Egyptian Copts working in Saudi Arabia are allowed to carry their own religious texts.

Zakher argues the prince’s visit could also have positive repercussions in Egypt, pointing to “a future in which extremist groups which Saudi Arabia sometimes supported begin to recede”.

Karim Kamal, head of the General Federation of Copts, believes Bin Salman’s visit to Egypt and meeting with the Coptic pontiff conveyed several important messages, one being that Riyadh acknowledges the patriotic role played by the Coptic Orthodox Church at the Arab regional level. It also, he argued, affirms the Saudi kingdom’s openness to all faiths.

“The words of His Excellency the Crown Prince expressed noble ideas concerning the respect of other faiths and beliefs. This message confirms that Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, represents moderate Islam.”

Inji, a Coptic woman living in Saudi Arabia, says the reality of life in the kingdom is very different from her expectations before moving to the Gulf.

“Contrary to its reputation abroad Saudi society is actually quite open. I’ve lived here for three years and not once have I been asked what my religion is. Should anyone ask me about the names of my children and learn they are not Muslim names they will not utter a word. They are polite and courteous…. Copts here are treated like everyone else in the country. No one asks what your religion is. Nobody interferes in the personal affairs of others.”

There are 1.5 million Christians living in Saudi Arabia, all of them foreign workers. There are no churches in Saudi Arabia apart from the ancient Jubail Church which no one is allowed to visit, let alone worship in. Under the Saudi constitution non-Muslims are forbidden from practising their religious rites and rituals openly and from building churches or other places of worship. Under Saudi law it is a criminal offence to proselytise any religion but Islam or to display non-Islamic religious symbols.

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