Vatican in Saudi In Secret Talks on Building Churches

· Pope’s spokesman hopeful of ‘historic’ agreement 
· Secret negotiations follow King Abdullah’s Rome visit

by John Hooper in Rome; theGuardian

The Vatican has been holding secret talks with the Saudi Arabian authorities on building churches in Muhammad’s homeland, according to one of Pope Benedict’s most senior Middle East representatives. Archbishop Paul-Mounged El-Hashem said: “Discussions are under way to allow the construction of churches in the kingdom. We cannot forecast the outcome.”

But, speaking to the news agency Agence France-Presse, the Lebanese prelate, the Pope’s envoy in the Gulf, added: “There are around three or four million Christians in Saudi Arabia, and we hope they will have churches.”

At the Vatican, the Pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said: “If we manage to obtain authorisation for the construction of the first church, it will be an outcome of historic dimensions.”

The opening last Friday of the first church in Qatar left Saudi Arabia as the only country in the region that still bans the building of churches and all forms of open Christian worship. However the construction of even one church on Saudi territory would outrage Islamist militants. Saudi Arabia – home to Islam’s holiest sites, at Mecca and Medina – is regarded by Muslims as sacred soil.

The Saudi authorities, inspired by the rigorous doctrine of Wahhabism, ban all non-Muslim religious rituals and materials. Bibles and crucifixes are confiscated at points of entry to the kingdom. Read full in theGuardian