In Saudi Arabia, only the Muslim religion has citizenship. There is no church there and non-Islamic worship is prohibited on pain of imprisonment, even when practiced in secret in private homes. Last January, Coptic Orthodox expatriates in the Wahhabi kingdom were able to celebrate Christmas, in particular thanks to the support of the Egyptian authorities.
Of the 2,1 million Christians in Saudi Arabia, 50 are believed to be Copts. These Eastern Christians celebrate the Nativity on January 000, and the latest celebration offered them hope for greater freedom, reports Christianity Today magazine.
In five cities of the kingdom, including the capital Riyadh, the Copts were able to gather for liturgical celebrations, "under the full sponsorship of the Saudi authorities" with the support of the embassy of Egypt, a country whose president, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, pursues a proactive policy in favor of Christians, especially with regard to the construction of churches. The cities of the holy places of Islam, Mecca and Medina, were not concerned.
One of the celebrations was led by Msgr. Marcos, bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, in front of 3 of his co-religionists. The prelate rejoices:
"Nine years ago I was told: Pray, but don't talk about it publicly. This time it's Saudi Arabia that's advertising it."
Saudi visits to the Copts in Egypt
This official visit is not suddenly from heaven, it comes as the royal house shows itself to be more and more tolerant towards the Copts. In 2014, she turned a blind eye to cults led in secret by Bishop Marcos with 4 believers. When the Qatari channel al Jazeera revealed the information, the Saudi authorities told the bishop that they did not mind. From then on, each year the Copts of the kingdom were able to benefit from an officially prohibited liturgical week. Usually, Coptic pastors met their followers in Bahrain where religious freedom is relatively greater.
For his part, King Salman ben Abdelaziz Al Saud even visited the Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Egypt. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo in 2018 and posed with Tawadros in front of an icon of Christ, and encouraged visits by Bishop Marcos. It was last December that the Copts learned that they could officially celebrate Christmas.
Other Christian denominations are concerned
Gestures of openness are also being made in favor of other Christian denominations, such as in 2022 when the Islamic World League organized a small interfaith meeting in Riyadh with the Vatican Secretary of State, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, the Secretary General of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEA), 15 prominent rabbis, and the United States Goodwill Ambassador for International Religious Freedom. According to EAJ Secretary General Thomas Schirrmacher, League President Mohammed al-Issa ensured that half of the delegates were Protestants. About 500 evangelicals work in the kingdom.
In August 2012, Riyadh expelled 35 Ethiopian Christians imprisoned since December 15, 2011 after being caught at a secret prayer meeting. Alerted by the NGO International Christian Concern, members of the American Congress had pressed for their release.
Saudi Arabia ranks thirteenth on the NGO Open Doors Global Christian Persecution Index 2023, among the 50 countries most hostile to them. Apostasy from Islam is punishable by death.