Major media outlets also have largely ignored the incident; a Nexis search finds reporting on the issue has been restricted to blogs and opinion columns, including a Washington Times editorial on March 16.
On March 12, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh was quoted in Arabic media reports as telling a visiting Kuwaiti delegation that it was “necessary to destroy all the churches of the region.”
Lawmakers in Kuwait are mulling a ban on the new construction of any non-Islamic places of worship in the small Gulf state, and the delegation asked Asheikh for his opinion. The grand mufti, a member of the ruling royal family, is the undisputed Sunni spiritual arbiter in Islam’s birthplace.
In his response, Asheikh cited a hadith (a saying or tradition of Mohammed), in which the 7th century founder of Islam was recorded to have said on his deathbed, “There are not to be two religions in the [Arabian] Peninsula.”
Saudi Arabia prohibits churches, but other Arab Gulf states do allow limited numbers of non-Islamic places of worship to accommodate mostly foreign believers.
The United Arab Emirates boasts a number of Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and evangelical churches, and Qatar opened its first church in 2008 – a Catholic church whose exterior displays no cross, bell, steeple or signboard.
There are about 500,000 Christians in Kuwait, the vast majority of them foreigners. According to a recent report in the Kuwait Times daily, the number of Kuwaiti nationals who are Christians has dropped, from 300 in 2007 to 150 today.
Despite the relatively large number of expatriate Christians – Kuwait total population is only 2.6 million, a number that includes 1.2 million non-nationals – the report also said there are only eight churches in the country.
Last month a Kuwaiti Islamist lawmaker, Osama Al-Munawer, announced plans to submit a draft law to ban the building of any more non-Islamic places of worship. He and another Islamist lawmaker, Mohammad Hayef, said there were already too many churches, given the size of the Christian minority.
Munawer was initially understood to be calling for existing churches to be demolished, and his comments prompted the country’s minister of Islamic affairs to say that doing so would violate the law and damage Islam’s image. The lawmaker clarified that he only wanted to prevent additional churches from being built.
Against that background, the Kuwaiti delegation sought the guidance of the top Saudi cleric.
Asheikh’s comments were first brought to wider attention by Middle East Forum associate fellow Raymond Ibrahim, who wrote on March 14 that the grand mufti was “not just some random Muslim hating on churches” but a prominent spiritual leader whose words on what Islam teaches are regarded as “immensely authoritative.”
Foundation for Defense of Democracies president Clifford May pointed out in a column Thursday that the Kuwaiti delegation seeking the mufti’s advice comprised members of a group identified by the U.S. government as a supplier of funds to al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliates including Lashkar e-Toiba.
The Barnabas Fund, a charity that helps Christian minorities in Islamic societies, noted that Asheikh’s comments came against a backdrop of intensifying pressure on Christians in the Middle East as a result of the “Arab spring” and growing dominance of Islamist groups.
Last October, Saudi Arabia opened a religious tolerance center based in Vienna, Austria. The establishment of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue raised eyebrows, given the strict Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam that prevails in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia made the number three spot on the Open Doors USA’s 2012 list of the worst persecutors of Christians, behind North Korea and Afghanistan. Over the past decade, the kingdom has never dropped lower than fourth place in the annual rankings, and has been in second place for seven of those years.
Under the International Religious Freedom Act, the State Department has designated Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for religious freedom violations since 2004.
The designation provides the administration with tools including sanctions and diplomatic pressure to encourage improvements, although both the Bush and Obama administrations waived sanctions in the case of Saudi Arabia.
In its annual report released this week, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which provides independent advice to the government, expressed concern about the situation, saying that as a result of the indefinite waiver, “the United States has not implemented any policy response to the particularly severe violations of religious freedom” in the kingdom.
“USCIRF has concluded that U.S. policy in Saudi Arabia does not adequately prioritize issues of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief,” the report said.