Catholicism migrated to the area of the Persian Gulf in the early 4th century. However, the history of the Catholic Church in this area has always been difficult. Nestorianism rose as a heretical movement among the faithful followers regarding the person of Jesus Christ. Nestorians believed Jesus had two distinct persons, one as Jesus the Man and the other as Jesus, the Word of God.

Correct Catholic belief on this issue believes that Jesus was one person with two distinct natures, both God and Man. Further issues developed as well in regards to Nestorius. He maintained that Mary was only the Mother of Jesus and not the mother of the Divine Word. Of course, the Church believes Mary was the Mother of Jesus, the God/Man and the two natures are not both independent of each other.

Then of course, the development and the spread of Islam marked the true period of persecution and oppression for the Church of the East. Islamic law forbade the public display of symbols other than Islamic symbols and the Catholic Church was forced into an underground existence of faith.

Yesterday however the Vatican announced active negotiations between the Saudi Arabian government and the Holy See directed towards the establishment of a legally sanctioned Catholic presence in the peninsula. This announcement of ongoing Vatican diplomacy is indeed remarkable news for the worshipping Catholics of the Muslim controlled state. It also marks an unprecedented sign of anticipated cooperation between Vatican and Islamic leaders. While it appears the negotiations are still in a nascent stage, their existence indicates a true desire for both religions to start an effort towards religious tolerance in the area.

At the current time, the public display of Christian articles of faith is forbidden, and the Saudi military and religious leaders zealously guard against any non-Islamic worship. Some observers indicate the development of reciprocal freedom of worship for Saudi Christians is a sign of the desire for the Islamic world to develop a new understanding of the faith of Muhammad. Others maintain religious freedom is extended to Muslim worshipers throughout most of the world, and Islamic countries should offer the same guarantee of religious freedom.

However, one really needs to take into consideration the motivations of this offer towards free religious worship. In Saudi Arabia there are always concerns of global perceptions and global image when dealing with the Western religions and nations. It seems that the foundation for this religious dialogue is not rooted in the teachings of the Prophet or the teachings of Jesus, but rather with the potential of hosting the 2016 Olympic Games in this oil rich country.

Regardless of the reason for this gesture of dialogue towards religious toleration in the Middle East, the revelation of potential Christian presence is a remarkable development. Perhaps this type of government permission towards free expression of Christianity will lead the Saudi government to conclude that not all religious forms of worship are a threat to Islam, and the Middle Eastern theological convictions. The result of this unfolding dialogue only underscores the evolving realization on the part of the Catholic Church and Islamic fundamentalists that sectarian violence and bloodshed over religious principles needs to stop immediately.

The announcement of discussion between the Holy See and the Saudi government does not erase the centuries of mutual persecutions committed by peoples of all faiths in this region, but it is a place to start the process of religious tolerance and social healing. Key to the evolving doctrines of Benedict’s papacy is the reemergence of a relationship between both monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam. For Benedict, global harmony and a reawakening of universal goodwill is the hallmark of all religious faith and dialogue. Restoration of lawful Christian celebrations in Saudi Arabia indeed is the heralding of a new era of understanding between followers of Christ and the prophet Muhammad.
Perhaps this drastic and monumental announcement regarding religious freedom between opposing theological parties is the dawn of a different and critical role for the Vatican and the Islamic world. What has unfortunately failed in terms of harmony and religious understanding over the centuries these discussions will provide the results Crusades, war and violence could not accomplish.

Followers of both faiths might in the future be able to proclaim, There is one God, called by many names.

Hugh McNichol writes on Catholic topics and issues. He writes daily @ http://verbumcarofactumest.blogspot.com & http://catholicsacredarts.blogspot.com

Comments are welcome, with writer identification @ hugh.mcnichol@trinettc.com

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