The images of Saudi Arabia are by now familiar—veiled women, robed princes, minarets, and desert. But what lies behind those snapshots is the heartland of Islam, the place where almost 14 centuries ago Muhammad proclaimed himself God’s final prophet; a place where today visitors are regularly reminded that the Qur’an and Islamic Sunna (tradition) are the foundations of Saudi society.

The very basis for the monarchy of the House of Saud stems from its long-standing alliance with Sunni religious authorities. Life is built around the ritual call to prayer five times a day, during which shops close and television programs are interrupted with still photos of a mosque. As site of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia holds special status in the Muslim world. Part of the country’s oil wealth supports the propagation of Islam worldwide.

But even before the deployment of some half-million American and Western troops, informed sources estimated there were perhaps half a million Christians among Saudi Arabia’s nearly 4 million expatriate workers. These included U.S., British, and other Western nationals; most came from the Philippines, together with a smattering from other Asian nations, such as Korea and Thailand, and from Africa.

Evangelism is strictly prohibited, but many expatriate Christians conduct their own worship or devotions in private as part of “study groups.” Publicity, such as it is, comes by cautious word of mouth. Members of Christian cells, both Catholic and Protestant, must stay on constant guard to avoid stirring the ire of fundamentalist Muslims, who could quickly bring pressure on politically sensitive governmental authorities.

Problem Of Religion

Worried not only about offending their “host nation,” but also about handing a propaganda weapon to Saddam Hussein, who called for Muslims to wage jihad (“holy war”) to expel Westerners from the land of the Prophet, U.S. and British military authorities took pains to keep reporters away from Christian or Jewish worship on Saudi soil. Worship was regularly conducted in military enclosures. And reporters were allowed to write about shipboard worship in international waters. But coverage of the religious aspects of Christmas was strictly off limits.

“Religion has been a problem since the first day,” said a senior U.S. military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We’ve always had religious services in Saudi Arabia, but the [Saudi] government let us know that ‘if you flaunt it, we’ve got to do something about it.’ We’ll continue, but we won’t publicize it.”

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Despite the strictures of operating as an underground church, ministry to the Christian faithful does go on in Saudi Arabia, with an ecumenical spirit that blends liturgical practices from different traditions and cultures. Because of an extreme shortage of ordained clergy, participants say lay ministry and leadership have a greater role than in “above ground” churches.

Both Christians and Muslims in Arabia are wary about being quoted by name on a subject as touchy as religion. But under the cloak of anonymity, many spoke freely and forcefully.

A prosperous, Western-educated young Saudi industrial executive in Damman said he worries that “morality has gone down as a result of liberal and secular thinking.” But he added there has been a noticeable return to the mosque among Saudis in their 20s and 30s over the past decade. Greater freedom of speech is needed, he said, to allow open discussion on practices of a government that often strays from the core precepts of Islam.

“Saudi Arabia respects the outer surface of shari‘a [Islamic law], but the heart and soul of shari‘a are often missed, such as respect for human rights and freedom of expression.… The battle is between secularism and having an Islamic society,” he said.

The West, he lamented, still “does not understand Islam. They think of a nation that is aggressive and hard to deal with. But Islam is like everything else: if you don’t practice it in its purity, it turns into polytheism.”

Since Islam regards Christians and Jews as “People of the Book,” the young businessman said their rights to worship in private in Arabia should be assured, but with provisos that no public displays be permitted so close to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

Nonbelievers In Their Midst

The arrival of foreign troops was undoubtedly the impetus for several letters to the religion pages of the Saudi English-language press, which asked what attitudes devout Muslims should adopt toward nonbelievers in their midst.

“As long as they do not show hostility towards Islam, we must be kind and gentle with them,” the paper told a reader who asked if Muslims must “stay clear” of members of other faiths.

In one small but apparently unprecedented step toward tolerance, a Catholic chaplain from the U.S. Army in early February blessed the Prince Turki dining hall shared by Saudi, Kuwaiti, and British forces at a local air base. Fr. Vincent Inhilterra of Paterson, New Jersey, began his invocation, “Oh God, Allah,” and ended by saying in Arabic: “May the God of all bless us all.”

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The priest later told reporters that he and other Christian military chaplains “respect” Saudi traditions and observe the law against proselytizing by non-Muslims, but that “this in no way compromises our faith.”

“Some of my Saudi friends were surprised to learn that Americans pray. They thought we were a godless people, but now they know better,” he added.

Such meetings of Christianity and Islam, West and Middle East, however, have been rare. An executive for the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco said he detects no impact on the kingdom’s religious practices or attitudes toward non-Muslims, because Western soldiers have been kept isolated from the Saudi general public.

“Despite the heat of the conflict, we are still maintaining all these restrictions. It’s a matter of concern to open-minded people,” he said.

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