Bishop Paul Hinder told journalists in Rome on March 27 that he was not taking the comments of Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh “too seriously” because they seem to have been merely comments given in an interview rather than a fatwa.
But the bishop voiced “a little concern about indirect influence” of the Muslim cleric’s statements because uneducated people could “easily accept” them.
Bishop Paul Hinder at the 2008 inauguration of St Mary's Roman Catholic church in Doha.
In response to a question from a Kuwaiti NGO delegation in March, the Grand Mufti said it was not only forbidden to build new churches on the Arab Peninsula but that all existing ones in the region should also be razed to the ground "as there are too many.”
His comments followed a call in February from a Kuwaiti parliamentarian for a ban on the construction of new churches — an initiative that has not yet been passed into law.
The NGO delegation asked the Sheikh to clarify what Islamic law says on the matter, to which he replied that Kuwait “was a part of the Arabian Peninsula, and therefore it is necessary to destroy all churches in it,” according to Arabic media.
The Islamic religious leader then cited the Prophet Mohammed to back up his argument, saying the Arabian Peninsula is to exist under only one religion.
The Grand Mufti is the most senior authority of religious law in Saudi Arabia, as well as the head of the Supreme Council of Islamic Scholars and in charge of the Standing Committee for Scientific Research and Issuing of Fatwas.
“I’m not taking it too seriously, even if he has a certain influence,” said Bishop Hinder, whose jurisdiction includes large parts of the Arabian Peninsula. “Above all, is it a fatwa or not? It seems not to be, but I still haven’t seen the original text to clarify that.”
Hinder said another reason he was not too concerned by the Grand Mufti’s comments was because among Muslims, the cleric’s remarks are also not considered to be very important. ”The other day I met a Sheikh [who] wanted to tell me that between themselves it hasn’t caused a lot of noise,” the bishop recalled. “After explaining to the Sheikh that the Grand Mufti’s comments had caused concern, he replied: ‘There are crazy people also among us.’”
The Swiss-born bishop added that he was sure the King of Saudi Arabia “was not pleased” with the cleric’s comments. He said the remarks were unlikely to influence the monarch’s interreligious dialogue initiatives because “politics is moving in another direction.”
Last October, Austria and Saudi Arabia, along with Spain, opened a center for interreligious dialogue in Vienna.
Austria's bishops condemned the Grand Mufti’s comments on March 23, saying they were "entirely unacceptable and incomprehensible.” They demanded “an official explanation and an unambiguous affirmation of the right of churches and Christians to exist in this region.” They also called for religious freedom to be respected there as it was elsewhere.
They added that such comments endangered Christians around the world — not just in Arab states — and do not help anyone. “Rather they risk seriously worsening the already difficult and dangerous position of Christians in Arab countries," the bishops said.
They also questioned Riyadh's sincerity in setting up interreligious projects if it allowed its top cleric to make such statements.
Bishop Hinder noted that few Muslim leaders have so far voiced their opposition to the comments, but he said that was probably because they don’t take them too seriously.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek, and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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