There’s some serious confusion swirling around over whether Saudi Arabia will allow the Vatican to build churches in the Wahhabi Kingdom.
International media initially reported that a high-ranking Vatican official signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia during his latest visit there which supposedly included provisions for allowing the construction of churches in one of the only countries in the world where they’re still banned to this day. That report was later rejected by a different Vatican representative, triggering uncertainty about whether churches will indeed be built in the Kingdom. There are different angles to approach this issue and several arguments that can be made for and against this possible development.
On the positive side of things, agreeing to build churches in Saudi Arabia would symbolize interfaith harmony and the next step in a Dialogue of Civilizations that powerfully contrasts with Huntington’s infamous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis. It would also show that the Catholic Church is making headway in supporting Christian rights all across the globe, especially in a country that’s notorious for its treatment of this minority. Accordingly, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman would be able to convince many Europeans that he’s indeed the reformer that he claims to be if he allows this to happen.
From the flipside, however, the Vatican might catch a lot of flak for cooperating with a country that still carries out public beheadings and is leading the disastrous War on Yemen that’s caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. As for Saudi Arabia, this might provoke its most zealous Wahhabis and give fuel to religious demagogues who might dangerously allege that these churches are becoming proselytization centers that pose a risk to national stability. In a sense, the Vatican’s international reputation might sour just as the Crown Prince’s domestic one could too.
Considering the pros and cons surrounding the construction of churches in the Wahhabi Kingdom, any decision in favor of this development would surely be a game-changer in more ways than one but would also trigger certain sensitivities that both sides might not be ready to respond to, at least not without a comprehensive and coordinated public relations strategy which may have been lacking at this moment. That might explain why the Vatican denied the news, possibly with Saudi Arabia’s implicit approval, because it may have been prematurely revealed before both sides were ready.