Abu Dhabi (AsiaNews) – The Saudi King Abdullah’s visit to the Vatican is a “positive sign”. It has thrown light on the “affinity” between Islam and Christianity regarding issues such as the family and peace between Israel and Palestine. This was affirmed by Msgr. Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar in Arabia since 2005. 65 year old Msgr Hinder, a Swiss Franciscan, lives in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. It is the hub from which he travels to visit the Arabian Peninsula’s Christian communities, mainly composed of immigrant workers.
The Apostolic Vicar underlines that religious freedom in Saudi Arabia is still a problem, even if over recent years the arrest of Christians has fallen and the King has reduced the power of the muttawa (religious police)
Below is the integral text of an interview given by Msgr. Paul Hinder to AsiaNews:
What are your impressions of King Abdullah’s visit to Benedict XVI?
The visit in itself I feel is a positive sign. Regarding the content of their talks I only saw the official Vatican statement: they spoke of the theme of peace in the Near East, inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue, above all the issue of the family. On these points in fact there is great affinity between Islam and Christianity and the open letter by the 138 Muslim scholars to Christian leaders is another sign of this.
I think that the encounter was also a good opportunity to raise the issue of religious freedom for Christians in Saudi Arabia. In the statement this theme was not explicitly mentioned, but it does speak of the ‘positive presence and work of Christians”. I think that in this context the Pope was also able to speak of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.
Has there been any improvement for Christians in Saudi Arabia, since Abdullah has been King?
In an indirect way yes, there has. Over recent years there has been a decline in arrests. I have to say that there are fewer problems for us Catholics because we have always sought to keep a low profile. However in the case of Protestants and Evangelicals there are still many arrests, also due to their activism.
There is also another aspect: some recently passed laws have limited the power of the muttawa, the religious police. Now they can no longer make direct arrests but have to first pass through the regular police, who have more respect for the law. The muttawa no longer have absolute power, as was the case before.
But in private can you still hold masses and catechesis etc..?
The King’s position is that in ‘private’ you are free to practise your faith and hold celebrations as long as they ‘do not disturb others’. The point is that the rules don’t define what ‘private’ is and this leave space open to limitations. Perhaps it must be added that the King is open to the religious classes present in Saudi Arabia.
Many countries from the Arabian Peninsula have recently requested diplomatic relations with the Vatican….
Only Saudi Arabia and Oman have no diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Oman has already committed itself to establishing relations, that process is already advanced but held back somewhat by questions of protocol. It must be said however that perhaps it is too big a step for Saudi Arabia. At the same time I do not exclude the possibility that king Abdullah’s visit to the Pope could open up some form of relations, in the interim.
And the question of Middle East peace?
The pope and the king spoke of a ‘just solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. This conflict interests both of them. Saudi Arabia plays a very important role in the entire process and the Holy See too has the possibility of playing an important part. In a certain way there is a convergence between the too visions. Both the Vatican and Saudi Arabia feel peace lies in the “two people, two states” solution, for Israel and Palestine.