The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has made some statements that have religious freedom critics bouncing between scratching their heads and curling up in horror. Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh recently announced that it is “necessary to destroy all the churches of the region.” The “region” he was referring to, of course, is the Arabian Peninsula (including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman).

Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia: It Is Necessary to Destroy All the Churches of the Region

Christians throughout the Middle East, of course, have responded sharply, finding themselves dismayed that such a statement could be made.

Russia Today (RT) has more about these comments:

Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah made the controversial statement in a response to a question from a Kuwaiti NGO delegation. A Kuwaiti parliamentarian had called for a ban on the construction of new churches in February, but so far the initiative has not been passed into law. The NGO, called the Society of the Revival of Islamic Heritage, asked the Sheikh to clarify what Islamic law says on the matter.

The Grand Mufti, who is the highest official of religious law in Saudi Arabia, as well as the head of the Supreme Council of Islamic Scholars, cited the Prophet Mohammed, who said the Arabian Peninsula is to exist under only one religion.

The Sheikh went on to conclude that it was therefore necessary for Kuwait, being a part of the Arabian Peninsula, to destroy all churches on its territory.

ArabianBusiness.com reported very similar details:

Speaking to a delegation in Kuwait, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, stressed that since the tiny Gulf state was a part of the Arabian Peninsula, it was necessary to destroy all of the churches in the country, Arabic media have reported.

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric made the comment in view of an age-old rule that only Islam can be practiced in the region.

In February, RT reports that Osama al-Munawar, a member of the Kuwaiti Parliament, was planning to submit official legislation that would remove all churches from the country. He later clarified that any church currently in existence would be allowed to stay, but that new houses of worship that were not Islamic in nature would not be allowed to be constructed.

What’s most interesting in this case is that al-Sheikh is calling for the houses of worship to be destroyed — a radical ideal to say the least. The proposal in Kuwait — a nation that he is not a resident of — calls, as stated, for a ban on any new buildings, not to destroy current houses of worship.

Elliot Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, though, explains why the Grand Mufti’s statement is unsurprising:

…the reported statement by the Grand Mufti came as no surprise to me. Nor is it a surprise, considering his interpretation of Islam, that the religious police make it so difficult for Christians even to worship privately, in their homes. In a better world, the UN Human Rights Council would be denouncing these violations of freedom of religion, as would the whole Organization of Islamic Cooperation—given that Saudi Arabia is the only one of its 57 member countries that absolutely bars churches. In the world in which we actually live, denunciations of the Saudis for this are almost non-existent.

In Saudi Arabia, Islam is the only permitted religion and there are no houses of worship for individuals who subscribe to different faiths.