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Religion and Society

Whether and when to build churches in the Middle East and mosques in the West

Interview with H.E. Msgr Camillo Ballin, Vicar Apostolic in Kuwait to the BBC

Is it true that the Vatican is engaged in secret talks to build a church in Saudi Arabia?

 


 

I am sure it is not true.

 

But even Nuncio Mounjed al-Hashem said so in Qatar.

 


 

I was not near the nuncio when he gave his interview so I cannot be certain as to what he said. However I can tell you that the day a church opens in Saudi Arabia will be one for the history books of Saudi Arabia, Arab countries and the entire world.

 

Is it true that the Vatican is putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to build a church there?

 

 

The Vatican has never put pressure on Saudi Arabia, or on any other state, but it does ask that all states respect fundamental human rights, including religious freedom. By the same token, it asks that all rights be respected, not only religious freedom.

 

Is it true that in Saudi Arabia Christians celebrate religious functions in homes, embassies and some halls?

 


 

I have never been to Saudi Arabia so I cannot answer your question.

 

Would the Vatican accept that a mosque be built inside the Vatican itself?

 

 

A place of worship is not a religion's ornament but a place where the faithful meet to pray. Why build a mosque in the Vatican when there are no Muslims?

 

But Saudi Arabia does not allow the building of churches for the same reason; there are no local Christians, and foreign Christians are only there for a while.

 


 

On this issue, the situation in Saudi Arabia is like that of Kuwait. It is not true that Christians in the Gulf are transient. They are there for 20, 30, 40 years! If we respect the religious needs of Muslims, why can we not do the same for Christians?

 

But in Kuwait there are about 450 local Christians and 20 churches.

 

 

It is not true that there are 20 churches. And 450 local Christians cannot be compared to the great number of Christian immigrants from India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri-Lanka, Arab countries and Europe.

 

Would the Vatican accept the building of a non Catholic church inside the Vatican itself?

 


 

Everyone is Catholic in the Vatican, so whose church would it be? Anyway, it is an issue that must be dealt with in a dialogue between the Vatican and other concerned Christian Churches.

 

In Italy only Italian Muslims or naturalised Italians can go to a mosque, not all Muslims?

 

 

That is not true. In Italy any Muslin can go inside any mosque, whether they are Italian-born, naturalised Italian or foreign. Mosques are open to everyone.

 

How many Muslims are there in Italy?

 

 

It is hard to say because many have entered the country illegally. You must be aware of the concerns expressed by the Italian government on the matter. Many Muslims come to Italy and Europe illegally and so it is hard to know how many there are. But what I can say is that there are 660 mosques in Italy.

 

Are you aware of the fatwa (legal decision) that bans all religions except Islam in the Gulf?

 

 

Yes, I know about it. But this fatwa is based on a hadith (oral tradition), not on any verse from the Qur'an. For Islam, is the Qur'an and the Traditions on the same level as far as Revelation is concerned?

 

In Kuwait can you celebrate religious functions outside of the officially recognised church?

 

 

No, it is not possible. We try to respect local laws.

 

You know that there is a law that bans the use of external symbols (bell towers, crosses, etc.) on Gulf churches?

 

 

I don't know if it is a law. In any event, I have not read the written text. What matters to us is the place of worship, not external markers. For example, on the new church in Qatar or those in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, there are no external markers. And for us this is not a problem. All we want is a place big enough for Christians to pray in peace.

 

Is it possible to change religion in Kuwait?

 

 

I would like for Kuwait and all Arab countries to implement the Qur'anic verse that says: "There is no compulsion in religion" (La Ikrah fi-d-Din).

 

If a Muslim comes to you and wants to become Christian, do you accept him?

 


 

It is complex problem. On the one hand, we must respect a person's freedom of conscience; on the other, we must respect the laws of the country. Are there any officials with whom we might discuss this issue?

 

Pastor Emanuil Gharib, Pastor of the Anglican Church in Kuwait, once stated in one of our TV studios that he won't go to Jerusalem or Bethlehem because they are occupied by Israel. Are you against him?

 

 

Pastor Emanuil Gharib belongs to the Evangelical Church, not the Anglican Church. Still I cannot personally be against him because I have high regards for him and love him very much. But I am against this idea of his. In fact, we must distinguish between state and religion; we should not mix state and religion.

 

But Pope Shenouda III (head of Coptic Orthodox Church) shares the same position as Pastor Emanuil Gharib. Are you against Pope Shenouda III as well?

 

 

I know that Pope Shenouda III has forbidden Coptic Orthodox from travelling to the Holy Land as a token of his opposition to Israeli occupation. When you asked me about Pastor Emanuil Gharib, I thought right away about Pope Shenouda III. But my answer is the same. We should not mix state and religion; we must keep distinct the power of the state from the freedom of the spirit.

 

Once you told newspapers that Muslims do not present Christianity in a good light. Why?

 

 

We ask that Christianity be presented as it wants to be presented. Muslims should therefore present Christianity based on Christian sources, not Islamic sources. We ask the same of Christians, who should present Islam on the basis of Islamic sources.

 

In Kuwait there is a Shia minority and a Christian minority. Do you plan to be against the Sunni majority?

 

 

It is true that Shias are a minority in Kuwait like Christianity. But this does not mean that we plan to be against the majority; all we want is to get along with the majority and anyone else in an open dialogue.

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