More than two million Filipinos live and work in the Middle East – around 1.2 million in Saudi Arabia alone – and a majority of them are Christians, predominantly Roman Catholics.
John Leonard Monterona, regional coordinator of the Migrante-Middle East organization, urged non-Muslim Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia to be careful not to violate restrictions imposed by the host government, to avoid being imprisoned.
Churches are outlawed in Saudi Arabia, but other Arab Gulf states do tolerate a limited number of non-Islamic places of worship, for mostly foreign Christians and small groups of local believers.
On March 12, the Saudi grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, told a visiting Kuwaiti delegation that all churches in the Arabian Peninsula should be destroyed. He cited Mohammed as having said on his deathbed – according to a hadith – “There are not to be two religions in the [Arabian] Peninsula.”
Monterona said in a statement that the Saudi government and religious officials “are well aware that there are religious activities being held discreetly in homes and apartments by non-Muslims.”
He urged non-Muslim workers from the Philippines to be careful but said the fatwa (Islamic religious ruling) should not come as a surprise.
“Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state,” he said. “It is where the two holy mosques are located. The fatwa should be viewed as a warning.”
Monterona recalled that a number of Filipinos and other foreign nationals had been apprehended by the Saudi religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, for illegal religious activity.
“The [Filipino workers] along with their pastors were eventually released on the condition that they will stop their regular religious worships and gatherings,” he said.
Asheik’s controversial comments have not drawn condemnation by the U.S. or other Western governments, but some religious leaders have spoken out.
The chairman of the German Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch called the comments “intolerable,” saying the mufti clearly lacked “respect for religious freedom and the peaceful coexistence of religions.”
In a statement, he urged Muslim political and religious leaders to clearly reject the ruling.
Zollitsch said the economic boom in Gulf Arab states was due in part to large numbers of foreign specialists and workers, many of whom were Christians.
“It would be a slap in the face of these people if you would take away the few Christian places of worship,” he said.
Zollitsch pointed out that Saudi King Abdullah has made much in recent years of a desire for interreligious dialogue, even establishing a center for that purpose in the Austrian capital, Vienna, last year.
Such an initiative, the archbishop said, was “thwarted completely by the fatwa issued by the supreme mufti of Saudi Arabia.”
“We stand firmly committed to the religious freedom of all people in our country,” the German church leader said. “No less emphatically, we demand the same rights for Christians in those countries where Muslims represent the majority.”
Austrian Catholic bishops discussed the matter during a spring plenary conference in southern Austria, and in a statement called the mufti’s statement “unacceptable and incomprehensible.”
They called on the Saudi government to provide an official explanation, saying there appeared to be a contradiction between the dialogue efforts of the king and the views of his top mufti.
“Especially at a time when the Arab revolutions have the whole region in turmoil, such declarations do not help people,” the bishops said. “Rather, they aggravate an already difficult and dangerous situation facing Christians in Arab countries.”