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The path of interfaith diplomacy – Saudi Arabia’s notable steps

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Saudi Arabia has only recently expressed its will at initiating interfaith dialogue, but are the countries beyond the continent ready enough to help it without the well-known critics?

“Individual cultures and ideologies have their appropriate uses but none of them erase or replace the universal experiences, like love and weeping and laughter, common to all human beings.” wrote Aberjhani in his Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays. If that is so, then why do people not inherently find a common ground through those feelings, and especially nowadays, whilst comparing Islam and Christianity? How come nobody can see the willingness for change of perception, rules and regulations in a country that just over a few years ago was considered part of the stone age. Allegations such as “ungodly, inhumane, deadly” were whispered to hold in the demonization of it. So, what if we tried to look at the situation past beyond our religious differences through building a double sided dialogue?

Interfaith dialogue refers to cooperative, constructive, and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions (i.e., “faiths”) and/or spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional levels. It is distinct from syncretism or alternative religion, in that dialogue often involves promoting understanding between different religions or beliefs to increase acceptance of others, rather than to synthesize new beliefs. And Saudi Arabia seems to be well on this path, or at least has realized that it hosts between 2 and 5% Christians that are of no Saudi decent, alas actively and willingly trying to build a bridge between Muslims and Christians.

Interreligious-Dialogue-Pope-binSalman

Pope Francis recently gained the media attention as he made his first-ever visit in the Arabian Peninsula, creating a better cradle for interfaith dialogue and spreading thoughts about togetherness, peace and fraternity for the whole world and particularly for this region. While all the eyes were wide open for the Pope’s visit in the UAE, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was extensively criticized for its lack of religious freedom. The typical biased vision towards it being a closed Muslim-only violent community was again widely spread.

Let’s look into the steps that King Salman and the Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman have undertaken over the last year to prove that those arguments were wrong and that Saudi Arabia is actually actively promoting interfaith dialogue.

The very first sign of the new course for Saudi Arabia could be considered the Economic conference in Riyadh back in October 2017 where the Crown Prince pledged his willingness to return the country to “moderate Islam”. Not only that but he also asked for global support to transform the hardline kingdom into an open society that empowers citizens and lures investors.  

We must not ignore that the Crown Prince has, in the last year and half alone, met with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in London, who is spiritual head of the worldwide Anglican communion. Also a meeting was held with the Maronite Patriarch, who arrived in Saudi in November 2017. During his visit in Egypt, the crown prince visited the Coptic Pope in Cairo and that gathering took place in front of wall-sized piece of art honoring Jesus, or so claims Moore. Following up to that, CBN news also reported of a meeting of the US-evangelical-leader delegation and the Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman in the UAE back in October 2018. So aren’t those clear signs that the Kingdom is ready to bring an equilibrium in its relations with Christians overall?

As an outcome to that, and as reported by a few media outlets, the Saudi government should loosen its restrictions around Christian churches on its grounds, as the Saudis started embracing the idea of religious diversity and integration of other cultures in society. In addition, a study titled “Coexistence in Saudi society” shows further evidence of not only the government, but also civilians` readiness for change.

Moreover, the Crown Prince Bin Salman addressed his readiness to work in a direction of a multicultural and multireligious Saudi Arabia as part of the interfaith dialogue, as the kingdom itself embraced the idea of construction of churches with the support of another Middle Eastern country – Egypt.

So, can this be considered a return to the roots of Saudi Arabia?

Indeed, as in December 2015, researchers from a French-Saudi expedition studying rock inscriptions in southern Saudi Arabia reported that the oldest Arabic text, carved on a large rectangular stone that was found in Saudi Arabia, is simply of a name, “Thawban (son of) Malik,” decorated with a Christian cross. The same cross systematically appears on the other similar stelae dating more or less to the same period. This must have been proof enough for the kingdom to start opening up to Christianity and its views and people, and articles such as the one in the Economist, if independent studies are correct, that tucked in the dunes and palms near the eastern oilfields lies a 7th-century monastery which proves that back in the time Christianity was tolerated on the Arabian Peninsula.

Saudi Arabia is ready to start pushing through the divides of cultural and religious differences in a way that incorporates and recognizes different religions on its boarders, filling out the gaps between different understandings and misinterpretations of history and society. However, its strive towards world-openness and the opening of an interfaith dialogue cannot happen unless there is a helping, non-judgmental hand on the other side.

Do you want to give us а hand?

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