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Catholic World News News Feature

Saudis to allow construction of a Catholic church? March 17, 2008

The Vatican is negotiating with the government of Saudi Arabia to allow construction of a Catholic church in that country, Vatican Radio reports.

Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. The government has not allowed the construction of any non-Muslim place of worship. No religion other than Islam is allowed to schedule public services, and even the possession of Bibles, rosaries, and crucifixes is forbidden.

While it is home to 800,000 Catholics-- virtually all of them foreign workers-- Saudi Arabia is the only country on the Arabian Peninsula without a Catholic church. However King Abdullah has now given his support to the drive for construction of a Catholic church.

Saudi Arabia does not have formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See. But in November 2007, King Abdullah became the first reigning Saudi monarch ever to visit the Vatican. Commenting after his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican officials had confirmed that the Pontiff pressed for permission to open a Catholic church in Saudi Arabia.

Vatican diplomats have long argued that Islamic states should practice reciprocity in recognizing the religious freedom of their Christian minorities, just as the predominantly Christian states of Europe recognize the rights of Muslims. The city of Rome, for example, has allowed construction of one of Europe's largest mosques.

Father Federico Lombardi, the spokesman for the Holy See, said that opening a Catholic parish in the Islamic land would be "a historic achievement" for religious freedom and a major step forward for inter-religious dialogue.

The apostolic nuncio to Kuwait, Qatar, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, Archbishop Paul-Mounged El-Hachem, is reportedly the lead Vatican negotiator in talks with Saudi officials.

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