Bishop tells the story of decade-long development of pastoral visits to Egyptian Christians, amid speculation of the kingdom’s steps toward religious freedom.
Saudi Arabia stunned foreign policy observers this month by publicly agreeing to normalize relations with Iran, under Chinese sponsorship. The deal between the neighboring Sunni and Shia arch rivals, known for sectarian proxy fights, is expected to ease tensions within Islam.
Meanwhile, the kingdom has recently taken less publicized steps toward another religious normalization: public Christian faith.
In this case, Egypt is the supporting nation.
“Nine years ago, I was told, ‘Pray, but don’t publicize it,’” said Bishop Marcos of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church. “This time, Saudi Arabia is publicizing it themselves.”
On January 7, Marcos headlined a month-long pastoral visit by celebrating the eastern Christmas liturgy amid 3,000 Coptic Christians residing in the kingdom. Facilitated by the Egyptian embassy, additional services in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Khobar, and Dhahran were “held under the full sponsorship of the Saudi authorities.”
It was the first public Christmas celebration admitted by the Islamic nation, home to the pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina. Muslim traditions cite Muhammad as forbidding the existence of two religions in Arabia, though scholars differ as to the geographic scope.
But Marcos’ trip was not the first Christian worship permitted.
He began praying about visits to Saudi Arabia after being sent in 2012 to help solve a dispute between authorities and an Egyptian Christian migrant worker. Marcos estimates there are about 50,000 Copts in the kingdom, among 2.1 million Christians—mostly Filipino Catholics.
None have a church to worship in. Open Doors’ World Watch List ranks Saudi Arabia No. 13 among the 50 countries where it is …