At a time when Indonesia is undergoing serious tests and challenges regarding the development of inter-religious and intra-religious relations lately, Saudi Arabia has even shown interesting and encouraging developments that deserve appreciation. The serious tests and challenges related to the development of inter-religious and intra-religious relations in Indonesia have appeared due to the emergence of a wave of militant-religious conservative groups and sectarian elites since the fall of the New Order.

The international community and institutions, (for example, the International Religious Freedom Report, which is issued periodically by the United States Government), consider the largest and most powerful kingdom in the Gulf and Arab Middle East region to be negative and very bad in terms of building relations and dialogue between and within religious communities. It is also judged badly in terms of its treatment of religious minority groups, including Muslim minorities, such as Shiites, even though this does not always reflect the reality in the country.

The poor assessment by the international community is based on a number of things. For example, in the Middle East region, Saudi Arabia is the only country that does not allow the construction of non-Muslim places of worship. Freedom of religious expression or celebrating religious rituals in public spaces for non-Muslims is severely restricted and subject to severe sanctions (imprisonment or deportation) if there are violations.

In reality, the population of non-Muslims is quite large in Saudi Arabia. They are expatriates or immigrants who work in various sectors, mostly in the “informal economy” sector. More than 33 percent of the total population in Saudi Arabia are migrants. They come from many countries in Africa, Asia (especially South and Southeast Asia), or the Middle East itself.

In terms of religion, the migrant workers are very plural, not only Muslims, but also Protestants, Catholics, Hindus and others. According to estimates by the Global Religious Futures Project, there are more than 1.4 million Christians who come from a number of countries: Lebanon, Egypt, the Philippines, Syria and countries in Africa. There are also Christians from Western countries who work as professionals.

Because there are no special places of worship, they carry out their rituals of worship in their respective homes or in Bahrain, a neighboring country near Saudi Arabia in the far east that can be reached by road.

It is important to note, even though there are no physical buildings for non-Muslim places of worship and non-Muslim worship is prohibited in public places, it does not mean that Saudi Arabia is “apathetic” and does not carry out “engagement” with non-Muslim communities. It is proven that in the field of employment in the education, industry and business sectors, they accept or absorb a lot of labor from non-Muslim or Shiite circles. At the university where I teach today there are also many non-Muslim or Shiite staff members and lecturers.

Historical breakthrough

With regard to this inter-religious relationship, in the last several years there have been important changes in Saudi Arabia. An important figure who became an innovator and pioneer behind efforts to build harmonious relations between religions (Muslim and non-Muslim) or intra-religious (Sunni and Shiite) was King Abdullah (died in 2015), who was known to be very moderate and an advocate of reform and positive change in various social, cultural and religious issues in Saudi Arabia.

The various socioreligious reforms or improvements that he pioneered were later followed up by his younger brother, King Salman, and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS). Several very important historical breakthroughs made by King Abdullah in terms of efforts to knit harmonious relations with non-Muslims or Shiites and non-Hanbali Sunni residents are as follows.

In 2007, King Abdullah met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. A year later he invited about 500 religious leaders from a number of countries to hold an interfaith meeting in Mecca. King Abdullah (along with leaders from Austria and Spain) also sponsored the establishment of the Vienna-based King Abdullah International Center for Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural Dialogue. Also, King Abdullah initiated the establishment of the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue (majlis al-hiwar al-watani), a forum for “national dialogue” in Saudi Arabia that involves various groups, including moderate Shiite leaders and non-Hanbali ulemas.

Efforts to build harmonious inter-religious relations that were initiated by King Abdullah were continued, strengthened and expanded by King Salman and MBS, who intensively held meetings with religious leaders, especially from Christian circles, both Catholic and Protestant, both in Saudi Arabia and in other countries, such as Egypt, the United Kingdom and the United States. For example, in 2017, King Salman and MBS received a visit from the supreme leader of the Lebanese Maronite Church, Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, and his entourage. Then, in 2018, King Salman and MBS held a meeting in Riyadh with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (along with his delegation), President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-faith Dialogue (PCID), Vatican.

The PCID, now led by Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, who is an expert in the study of Islamic history and the Middle East, is an important institution of the Catholic Church that was established by the Vatican to promote inter-religious dialogue in accordance with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (especially the declaration of Nostra Aetate) in order to create global peace and the spirit of mutual understanding and respect between Catholics and non-Catholics in this universe.

Later, in 2019, King Salman and MBS again met with Christian leaders from the United States Evangelical Church led by Joel Rosenberg. Not only in Saudi Arabia, MBS in his visits to the US, the UK, Egypt and other countries also frequently took the time to meet with Christian leaders. In this era of the Covid-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia has also held several inter-faith virtual conferences. In 2017, King Salman and MBS received a visit from the supreme leader of the Lebanese Maronite Church, Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, and his entourage.

It was widely reported in the news that the various meetings with Christian leaders (Catholics, Maronites, Copts, Anglicans, Evangelicals, etc.) were not merely “friendship formalities”. Furthermore, these meetings are also to build a more concrete interfaith dialogue so that the government\’s efforts to build, change or transform Saudi Arabia into a modern, moderate and open kingdom-state become more solid, have the support of the international community and are more comprehensive; not only in the areas of economy, science, technology, culture and women\’s emancipation, but also in the religious sector.

Religious moderation

For the last several years, the government has indeed intensively carried out a campaign of “Islam wasatiyah” or “middle-line Islam” (read, moderate Islam), which is neither “extreme left” nor “extreme right”. The government\’s seriousness in efforts to carry out “religious moderation” or realize “moderate Islam” is marked by various programs and fundamental policies.

The programs and policies, among other things, change the educational curriculum (especially religious textbooks), abolish the “sharia police”, which have become the “scourge” of society, and restructure the functionaries of important Islamic institutions, such as imams and preachers of mosques or ulemas who sit on the Hay\’at Kibar al-Ulama Council.

All are replaced with clerics or ulemas with moderate and inclusive views. Preachers and religious teachers who have a radical-militant orientation are also “put in order” so that they do not spread and become an outbreak in the community. Now, there are circulating rumors, based on the results of talks and meetings with Christian leaders, the government has allowed churches to be built on its territory so that 1.4 million Christians in Saudi Arabia can freely worship.

In the past, there used to be a church on the Arabian Peninsula that is now part of Saudi Arabia, namely the old church in Jubail, which was built in the 4th century AD (known as the Jubail Church or Kanisat al-Jubail). There are also sources who say that in Jeddah there is an Anglican church built by the British a century ago.

The Najran area in southern Arabia used to be also known as a Christian center, and even the Prophet Muhammad was said to have developed friendships with the Christian leaders of Najran. So, if the Saudi government decided to allow the construction of churches, it actually has a solid historical basis.

If the construction of churches (or other non-Muslim places of worship) could be carried out, this would be an extraordinary “historical event”. As its global impact, Saudi Arabia will be increasingly supported by the international community in its efforts to modernize its country and moderate its society.

Important lessons

There are a number of important lessons that the Indonesian government and people can learn from Saudi Arabia. Among other things, efforts to realize tolerant and harmonious inter-religious relations will be difficult to make if there are many closed-minded militant-conservative religious groups and political elites who have and perform sectarian and ethnocentric views in various lines of life.

Therefore, the government and elements of society need to be seriously vigilant and then handle firmly, carefully and thoroughly the phenomenon of the development of conservative, militant, intolerant, sectarian and ethnocentric groups in Indonesia. This group needs to be diruwat (attempt to return to one’s true self) and “be put in order” as Saudi Arabia did. If not, they can become a “stumbling block” for the government in its efforts to realize “religious moderation” and make Indonesia a moderate, tolerant and pluralist country in the future.

Note: this article was translated and published by Kompas

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Antropolog Budaya di King Fahd University, Direktur Nusantara Institute, Kontributor The Middle East Institute, Kolumnis Deutsche Welle, dan Senior Fellow di National University of Singapore.

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