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Rome, Italy
Vatican official urges Saudis on Religious Freedom
Muslim Saudi Arabia should guarantee more freedom and security for minority Christians and allow more priests in to administer to the faithful, the bishop in charge of Roman Catholics in the country said on November 5.

Bishop Paul Hinder, speaking in an interview with Reuters on the eve of King Abdullah's historic meeting with Pope Benedict, also said he hoped the encounter of November 6 could eventually lead to diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Islam's birthplace.

The meeting with Abdullah, the first between a Pope and a Saudi monarch, is expected to centre on Christian-Islam relations and the tiny Christian minority in the country that is home to Islam's holiest sites.

"What I am hoping is that there can be more security and freedom for our people in a very low profile manner," Hinder, a Swiss national who is the bishop of Arabia, said in a telephone interview from his base in Abu Dhabi.

"I am not expecting to be able to build a cathedral. But at least (we need) the freedom to worship in security," he said. Vatican officials often ask why church construction is banned in Saudi Arabia while Muslims can build mosques in Europe.

There are 1.2 million Christians in Saudi Arabia, nearly a million of them Roman Catholics. Most are migrant workers, including a large Filipino community.

They are only allowed to worship in private places, usually homes, and cannot practice their faith in public or wear signs of their faith in public.

Hinder said rules regulating private worship by non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia were not clear and were open to interpretation by hardliners in local situations.

"What are the limits? How many people constitute a private gathering? How loud can we celebrate? There are no fixed rules," he said, which he said leaves police with a margin of judgment.

"It depends mainly on the good will of these people. If they are more tolerant -- and there are a lot of tolerant, understanding, people in Saudi Arabia -- we have no major problem," he said.

"But if there is a hardliner in charge (locally), there is no protection and you can soon be accused of doing something illegal even if we think it is legal".

Hinder said it would be "a wonderful step" if Saudi authorities would allow Christians to use halls that are not recognisable as places of worship from the outside "but where in freedom and security, we can worship with our people."

More Priests, please...

"The most important thing is to get the possibility to gather in freedom and security for our worship, our masses and our activities," he said.

He also urged Saudi authorities to allow more Church personnel to enter the country to administer to Catholics. He asked for "the necessary number of priests to do the absolute basic services for the main groups in the big cities".

Vatican officials say there are only a few priests in Saudi Arabia to handle pastoral needs of some one million Catholics.

The Vatican has often called for greater rights for Christians in predominantly Muslim countries. But the Holy See considers Saudi Arabia a severe case.

King Abdullah is custodian of Islam's holiest mosques in the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, sites of pilgrimages by millions of Muslims every year.

Abdullah and Benedict are expected to discuss the broader issue of Christian-Muslim relations and need for believers of all faiths to work together for peace.

Muslims around the world protested last year after Benedict, speaking at a university in his native Germany, used a quote that associated Islam with violence. He said he was misunderstood and later expressed his esteem for Muslims.

Source: News Agency Reuters