Interfaith dialogue has become an important exercise in finding the right words to overcome both extreme violence and ordinary misunderstanding. True progress, however, is best measured in deeds. The inauguration last week of Qatar's first Christian church — a small Catholic chapel bearing neither bells nor visible crosses — has been hailed as a welcome step forward in relations between Catholicism and Islam. But an even more dramatic development is under discussion just across the border: The Vatican has confirmed that it is negotiating for permission to build the first church in Saudi Arabia.
Presiding over the cradle of Islam and home to its holiest sites, the Saudi monarchy has long banned the open worship of other faiths, even as the number of Catholics resident in Saudi Arabia has risen to 800,000 thanks to an influx of immigrant workers from places like the Philippines and India. Mosques are the only houses of prayer in a country where the strict Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam dominates. But Archbishop Paul-Mounged El-Hachem, the papal envoy to the smaller countries on the Arabian peninsula, such as Kuwait and Qatar, has confirmed that talks are under way to establish formal diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Saudi Arabia, and to eventually allow for Catholic churches to be built there. Pope Benedict XVI is believed to have personally appealed to King Abdullah on the topic during the Saudi monarch's first ever visit to the Vatican last November.
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