Saudi Arabia, The Catholic Church in

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Saudi Arabia is located on the Arabian peninsula connecting Asia and Africa. It is bordered on the north

by Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait, on the northeast by Qatar, on the east by the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, on the south by Yemen and on the west by the Red Sea. The al-Sarah mountains run parallel to the western coastline, with plateaus along their eastern slopes. Most of the region is covered by two deserts, the Great Nufud and the Empty Quarter (ar-Rub al-Khâlī ), the latter constituting the largest continuous body of sand in the world. Bisected by the Tropic of Cancer, the region is temperate, the lowlands semitropical. Sandstorms occur inland, with monsoons to the east. Rainfall is scarcein the deserts no rain may fall for up to ten yearsand a few small rivers flow along the southern and eastern coasts. Human life is possible in much of the region only because of the presence of oases, some of which are large enough to support several villages. Agricultural products, limited due to the harsh conditions, include dates, wheat, barley, alfalfa, coffee, grapes and peaches. Natural resources include vast petroleum reserves in al-Ahsâ, near the Persian Gulf, as well as iron ore gold, copper and natural gas.

Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 by Abdul Aszîz Ibn al Saûd (18801953). Most Arabians are descended from southern Qahtan and northern Adnan tribes. Abdul Aszîz effectively started the reconquista by retaking Riyadh in January of 1902; the unification of what is known as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was completed in 1934. Controlling one-fourth of the world's oil reserves, the region is dominated economically by the state-run ARAMCO company, which extracts crude oil. Fahd bin Abdul Aszîz ibn al Saûd ruled as king and prime minister beginning in 1982.

What follows is a history of the modern state of Saudi Arabia (for a history of the Arabian peninsula, see arabia).

History. Saudi Arabia is a modern state created from the territories conquered by the Saud family, strict followers of the branch of Sunni Islam called Wahabism, founded by the 18th-century religious reformer Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahab. In 1916 a British-backed revolt led by Hussein ibn Ali, sharif of Mecca, freed the Arabian Peninsula from Ottoman rule. Following World War I Hussein claimed the title of king of Arabia, but foreign interests recognized only his sovereignty over the Hejaz region, the cradle of Islam that contained both Mecca and Medina. Hussein and his son, who became king in 1924 were soon at war with the Saud tribal confederacy under Abdul Aszîz ibn al Saûd, sultan of Najd. Ibn al Saûd, who had captured Riyadh as early as 1902, defeated Hussein, conquered the Hejaz and proclaimed himself king in 1926, and proceeded to unify the peninsula under his own rule. In 1932 he assumed the title of king of Saudi Arabia.

The region's economy relied upon the pilgrim trade through Mecca and Medina until the discovery of enormous deposits of oil in the eastern part of the country in the 1930s. The exploitation of these oil deposits, first by the U.S. Standard Oil Company in 1938, markedly changed the fortunes of the region. In 1944 the government reorganized the oil company as the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), which brought it increasingly into world affairs.

Despite its international business dealings, Saudi Arabia remained a Sunni Muslim state, denying freedom of religion and declaring the Quran and the Sunna of Muhammad to be the constitution. Religion and government remained wholly interconnected. The public practice of other Muslim orders, of Christianity, or of any other religion was strictly forbidden. Private practice of Christian faiths was tolerated for diplomats and other authorized foreigners. Despite the region's wealth, the government remained concerned about limited supplies of drinking water, a growing population and the region's dependence on a finite supply of oil.

By 2000 there were six priests and under 20 religious tending to the spiritual needs of the foreign Catholics living in the country on worker's visas. Christians Catholics, Copts, and Protestants were predominately from the Philippines, India or African countries. However, by the late 1990s the future of even foreign Christians in the country appeared questionable, as reports surfaced of Christians arrested for possession of Bibles, or for meeting for clandestine prayer groups and Bible study. The punishment for practicing a non-Sunni Muslim faith was on the order of two to six months' imprisonment, forced conversion to Islam or deportation. The punishment for proselytization was torture and the death penalty, although a 1995 case involving a foreigner charged with conversion ended with the prisoner's 1997 release following an international outcry. The government appeared to be making a concerted effort to seek out and remove all practicing Christians, whether citizens or not, as part of the planned "Saudiization" effort that would replace foreign workers with Saudi citizens.

Bibliography: r. h. sanger, The Arabian Peninsula (Ithaca, NY 1954). h. st. j. b. philby, Saudi Arabia (London 1955). p. k. hitti, History of the Arabs (6th ed. New York 1956). k. s. twitchell, Saudi Arabia (3d ed. Princeton 1958). g. a. lipsky et al., Saudi Arabia (New Haven 1959).

[j. a. devenny/eds.]