First Christian mass held in Saudi Arabia
CAIRO - Egypt’s Christians are optimistic following the first Coptic mass in Saudi Arabia. Dozens of Coptic Christians attended the mass at a tourist facility in Riyadh.
The mass, Egypt’s Christians said, reflects the tremendous changes happening in Saudi Arabia.
“It even portends more change in that great country in the future,” said Father Polis Halim, spokesman of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church. “Saudi Arabia is showing an admirable degree of tolerance that gives us a lot of hope.”
The story began in May when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz visited Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo and met with Coptic Pope Tawadros II. The crown prince invited Tawadros to visit Saudi Arabia and check on the condition of the Copts — mostly expat Egyptians — living there.
Bishop Ava Morkos, a senior Coptic official, travelled to Riyadh and was received by the head of the pan-Islamic NGO Muslim World League Mohammed al-Eissa. On December 2, Morkos said the first Coptic mass in Saudi Arabia.
“This is a historic development,” Morkos told The Arab Weekly in a telephone interview from Riyadh. “Saudi Arabia is setting a wonderful example for tolerance.”
Having an Egyptian bishop say mass in Saudi Arabia would have been inconceivable not long ago, before a range of social reforms were introduced in the kingdom. Over the past year, women have been granted the right to drive, attend football matches along with men and work side by side with male co-workers.
Cinemas are being constructed across the country, musical concerts are being organised and attended by all social classes. Arab and international artists are visiting Riyadh in rapid succession.
This is also about the potential change of fortunes for Christians in the Middle East, with the
richest country in the region opening to one of the oldest religious communities in the Middle East.
The rise of Islamist extremism across the region has led to repeated attacks on the Middle East’s Christian communities. Many Egyptian Copts point to the rise of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in 2012-13 as the start of the latest campaign against them.
“Christians feared for their lives and fled the country,” Tawadros told Saudi Arabia’s Arab News. “When the country regained its stability, a lot of them returned to Egypt.”
Egypt’s Coptic community makes up around 10% of Egypt’s population. The series of attacks targeting churches and Christians by Islamist extremists has led many Copts to say their way of life is threatened.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has sought to forge ties with Egypt’s Coptic community and was the first sitting president to attend Coptic Christmas Eve celebrations in 2015 during which he urged Egyptians to look beyond religious differences. “It is important that the whole world watch us — the Egyptians,” he said. “You noticed that I am not using another word than ‘Egyptians.’ We [all] are the Egyptians.”
There are approximately 1.8 million Christians in Saudi Arabia, the Coptic Church said. Most of those Christians are mainly Roman Catholic expat Filipinos but still the mass presided over by Morkos is a milestone.
“By showing tolerance to the Christians, Saudi Arabia and Egypt can inspire other countries in the region,” said Ishak Ibrahim, an Egyptian Christian researcher working with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights as part of its Freedom of Religion and Belief Programme. “The conditions of Christians are very bad in many of the countries of the region and this may change with the largest two countries in it acting as role models.”
During his meeting with Tawadros in March, Crown Prince Mohammed suggested establishing an interfaith dialogue initiative between the region’s Muslims and Christians.
Morkos discussed that and other issues related to Christian presence in Saudi Arabia and many speculated his visit to Riyadh would not be the last initiative between the Coptic Church and the Saudi government.
One of those developments, Halim said, would be the possible construction of the first church in Saudi Arabia.
“There are no churches in Saudi Arabia,” Halim said, “but this is a situation that I am sure will change and very soon with the country’s leadership showing a real will for change.”