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 most difficult to be a Christian today. Visiting Coptic clergy used to meet the faithful in neighboring Bahrain.
But when Marcos returned in 2014, he said he conducted liturgies for about 4,000 believers. Leaks covered by the Qatari news network Al Jazeera resulted in some attention, but the Saudis told him they were not troubled by it. Weeks-long pastoral trips continued annually, and in 2016 Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz visited Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Egypt.
It was 2018 that led to further openness. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (known as MBS) visited the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo in March, taking a famous photo with Tawadros in front of an icon of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. He invited the Coptic pope to visit Saudi Arabia, while encouraging continuation of Marcos’ visits.
That December, the first liturgies were officially reported. Not everyone was pleased. Medhat Klada, spokesman for the European Union of Coptic Organizations…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 29, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.