By Engy Magdy
CAIRO — Last month, Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church held its first-ever Christmas Eve Mass in Saudi Arabia for Coptic Egyptians residing there. Coptic Christians and the Coptic media in Egypt cheered the event as a milestone for those who live in the Persian Gulf and lauded the government of Saudi Arabia for actively heading toward the “horizons of the developed world.”
Although the Divine Liturgy was held on Jan. 6 — as Coptic Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7 — it was officially reported at the end of the month in the latest edition of Al Keraza Magazine, issued by the Media Center of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
According to Al Keraza, the metropolitan of Shubra al-Khaima, Bishop Morcos, paid a visit to the Egyptian Copts residing in Saudi Arabia as he traveled to several cities in Riyadh, Jeddah, and the eastern region, where Masses attended by a large number of Copts and Eritreans were held under the full sponsorship of the Saudi authorities.
“I used to travel to Saudi Arabia to meet and pray with the Coptic community residing there,” Bishop Morcos told The Tablet in a phone call. “This time, some worshippers asked if I can hold a Divine Liturgy for Christmas. The Saudi authorities accepted the request, hence they facilitated everything.” The Mass was held in a rented hall.
Bishop Morcos credited the Saudi government for opening up to other religions and responding to the persistent desire for interfaith dialogue.
However, he ruled out requesting the building of a church for Christians in Saudi Arabia, saying, “We haven’t asked for the establishment of a Coptic church in Saudi Arabia. Currently, we are satisfied with [Saudi authorities] allowing us to meet with the Coptic community and thank them for this.”
The process of modernization and openness taking place in Saudi Arabia has drawn the attention of the region and the world. The current reforms that represent a systematic restructuring of religion’s role in Saudi politics and society will reverberate around the region, where Saudi Arabia is seen as the heartland of Islam, experts said.
“The new elite in Saudi Arabia are convinced of the need for openness and reform,” Emad Gad, a former member of the Egyptian parliament and a professor of political science at Cairo University, said in his interview with The Tablet.
“Many of this new young elite, which is currently leading Saudi Arabia, received their education abroad in America and Europe, so for them, the Western lifestyle is not as reprehensible as it was for the old generations.”
Gad added, “Although the ongoing radical reforms in Saudi Arabia face strong pockets of resistance and resentment, the monarchical regimes can implement transformations and impose law by force as the matter differs from the so-called democratic countries in [a] region which isn’t democratic in its core. Reform in our region requires decisions from the highest authority.”
Women’s rights are some of the most radical changes Gad is hailing in Saudi Arabia. Recently, the hajj ministry has officially allowed women of all ages to make the pilgrimage to Mecca without a male guardian, known as a “mahram.”
“Also, [the government] allowed women to stay in hotels without a mahram, even though this does not happen in Egypt,” he noted.
In 2012, the late king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz founded the “International Dialogue Centre” (KAICIID) in partnership with other countries.
According to the website of the center, which is located in Lisbon, “KAICIID was born from a vision of interfaith cooperation and peace. … KAICIID’s mandate and structure were designed to foster dialogue among people of different faiths and cultures to overcome animosities, reduce fear and instill mutual respect.”
Leaders from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim religious traditions, and the governments of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Republic of Austria, the Kingdom of Spain, and the Holy See (as a founding observer) joined together to make the vision of KAICIID a reality.”
Elias Halabi, a researcher in Christian-Muslim Studies at the University of Balamand in Lebanon, said, “The process of openness to other religions began in the era of King Abdullah, who sought peace with others after 9/11 to address that narrative which linked terrorism to Islam. Now his successors … continue this work, which means that openness falls within the Saudi vision.
“Every orientation and action aimed at building bridges with others and respecting others’ cultures is a step in the right path and its repercussions will be great. Saudi Arabia is an influential country and therefore, its steps will be seen as important as it is the incubator of the two holy mosques,” Halabi added in a phone interview with The Tablet.
Saudi religious affairs have long had implications beyond the kingdom’s borders, said experts from the Carnegie Endowment. Over decades and throughout the Muslim world, religious leaders have promoted a specific Saudi version of Islam that has become known as Wahhabism, which is described as an ultraconservative version of Islam.
Many intellectuals in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East blame Wahhabism for religious extremism and hate speech against Christians and other religions’ followers in the region. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks were citizens of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi preachers are blamed for the radicalization of Muslims in many Arab countries. Now, as the Saudi government is overhauling religious affairs at home, will modernization and opening up to global societies inside the kingdom change things for religious minorities in the region?
Observers in the region expect the ongoing reforms in Saudi Arabia will lead to the cutting down of support for the Salafism movement, which relates to al-Qaeda, a Salafi-jihadist organization.
Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi, which is an extremist religious movement, have broad influence in Egypt, especially in the slums and poor villages.
“Stopping funding means the weakness of the Salafist and extremist movements, which means limiting its influence on people, and hence [the] weakening of the hate speech against Christians and others,” Gad said. However, it’s not game-changing for Christians in the region where they still face persecution and hatred.
“Although the influence of Saudi Arabia and what is happening has a positive impact, the real change outside the kingdom depends on every country,” Gad said.
“In Egypt, we still have a long road. For example, Article 2 of the constitution abolishes the principle of citizenship and entrenches discrimination against non-Muslims. Does our decision-maker have the courage to change this article?” For religious minorities in the region, the impact will take decades, he added.
For experts from the Carnegie Endowment, social liberalization and political liberalization do not go hand in hand, and many small, incremental steps do not amount to an integrated and coherent vision but instead an audacious leap that may bring unknown results — or may lead to an eventual retreat.
However, “given the culture of the Middle East, modernization comes gradually,” Gad said. “There is no comprehensive modernization in one step. The last thing [that] comes is political modernization. If we compare Saudi Arabia to Kuwait, which has a parliament and free elections, Kuwait is very less open than Saudi Arabia.”