On December 1, 2018, Egyptian and other Arab media reported that, for the first time, a Coptic Mass had been held in Saudi Arabia, in the city of Riyadh. The Mass was performed by Ava Morkos, Coptic Bishop of Shobra Al-Kheima in Egypt, as part of his visit to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi media reported that the Bishop was visiting the kingdom following an invitation extended by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March 2018. It should be noted that Bishop Morkos, who is in charge of the Copts in Saudi Arabia, has visited the country three times in the past, but this was the first time he openly conducted a documented Christian service. Several days after the Mas was held, Coptic Pope Tawadros II told the English-language Saudi daily Arab News that he too had received an invitation from bin Salman to visit Saudi Arabia, and that he was willing to do so, but that no date had been set for the visit.
Saudi Arabia – which has about 1.5 million Christian residents, all of them foreign workers – is the only Gulf country which bans the building of churches in its territory, and in fact forbids Christians to hold religious services anywhere, in public or in private homes. Until recently, this law was enforced, but in 2018 it was reported that the religious police had stopped enforcing it. Moreover, in the last year meetings were held between senior Saudi officials and Christian leaders from around the world, and there were reports that Saudi Arabia means to change the law and build churches in the kingdom.
The Coptic Mass held in Riyadh (Source: Coptstoday.com, December 1, 2018).
This document reviews the reports on the Mass held in Riyadh, as well as reports from the past year indicating Saudi openness to Christian leaders.
Bishop Morkos Visits Saudi Arabia At The Invitation Of The Saudi Crown Prince
Bishop Morkos arrived in Saudi Arabia on November 26, and is expected to remain there until December 17. He said that the purpose of his visit was to meet with Coptic families that reside in the kingdom, and that the visit came in response to an invitation extended by bin Salman during the latter's visit to St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the Abbassia District of Cairo in March 2018. Until now, meetings between Bishop Morkos and Copts living in Saudi Arabia have been held in Bahrain. To date, he is the only senior member of the Coptic clergy to ever visit the Saudi kingdom.
During his current visit to Saudi Arabia, on November 27, the Bishop met with the Secretary-General of The Muslim World League (MWL), Muhammad bin 'Abd Al-Karim Al-'Issa, in the presence of representatives of the Egyptian Embassy in the kingdom.
Bishop Morkos and MWL Secretary-General Muhammad Al-'Issa (Source: Twitter.com/MWLOrg, November 27, 2018)
The religious services led by Bishop Morkos took place over two days (November 30 – December 1, 2018) at the home of a member of the Coptic community who works in Riyadh, in the presence of dozens of Copts. Representatives of the Egyptian Embassy in Saudi Arabia were also present. Bishop Morkos brought the holy objects required for the ceremony from Cairo.
The Coptic Mass held in Riyadh (Sources: Al-Watan, Egypt, December 1, 2018; Coptstoday.com, December 1, 2018, Youtube.com, December 1, 2018)
Saudi Openness To Christian World Leaders; Reports Of Intention To Lift Ban On Building Of Churches In Saudi Arabia
The Mass in Riyadh appears to be part of a tendency of the Saudi leadership towards interreligious openness, which has been visible in the past year. This was reflected in several meetings, and in several reports that Saudi Arabia is considering lifting the ban on the construction of churches.
MWL Secretary-General Muhammad Al-'Issa recently met with Christian leaders around the world, including Pope Francis, and visited several churches. In March 2018, bin Salman visited St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo – a visit hailed by the Coptic Church as "A new chapter in relations between Saudi Arabia and the Church" – and met with Coptic Pope Tawadros II, Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, and with Bishop Morkos. It was reported that during the meeting the two discussed relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and bin Salman expressed his affinity for the Copts.Three days later, bin Salman met with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby as part of his visit to the U.K.
In mid-April 2018, for the first time, a high-ranking delegation from the Vatican visited Saudi Arabia, headed by Cardinal Jean-Louis Pierre Tauran, president of the Vatian's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The Cardinal met with King Salman, and he and Al-'Issa signed an agreement on cooperation and the creation of a joint coordinating council which is to meet annually. Arab media reported that the agreement included a pledge by Saudi Arabia to establish churches for the Christian residents of the country, reports that were were denied by the Vatican.
Muhammad Al-'Issa and Cardinal Jean-Louis Pierre Tauran signing the cooperation agreement (Source: Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, April 22, 2018)
In a recent interview with Channel i24, Joel Rosenberg, American author and prominent figure in Evangelical political circles, said he had visited Riyadh in November 2018 as the head of an American Christian Evangelical delegation and had met with bin Salman. During the meeting, he said, bin Salman expressed willingness to act to build churches in Saudi Arabia in the future, and explained that the religious prohibition on the presence of churches in the Arabian Peninsula could be given a narrow interpretation limiting the ban to Mecca and Medina, the cities holy to Islam.
It should be noted that these reports of meetings between Saudi officials and members of the Christian religious establishment were accompanied by reports that the Saudi religious police had ceased its customary raids on religious services held in the private homes of non-Muslims, and that the city of Neom, which Saudi Arabia plans to build on its northwestern border, is a potential site for the construction of a church.
 Coptstoday.com, December 1, 2018.
 Arab News (Saudi Arabia), Dev 4, 2018.
 On the Saudi religious ruling forbidding the erection of churches in the Arabian Peninsula, See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.1123, Official Saudi Fatwa of July 2000 Forbids Construction of Churches in Muslim Countries; Kuwaiti MP Concurs, March 24, 2006; MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 460, Debate on Churches in Gulf States, August 7, 2008. On the controversy over erecting churches in Kuwait, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 3435, Protest in Kuwait over Municipal Council's Refusal to Allow Christians to Build Church, December 9, 2010; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 4636, In Kuwait, Public Debate over Demand to Demolish Churches, April 4, 2012; coptstoday.com, December 1, 2018.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), masrawy.com, December 1, 2018.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), December 1, 2018.
 Masrawy.com, December 1, 2018.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), November 29, 2018.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), Coptstoday.com, December 1, 2018.
 At the same time, the Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily, which is affiliated with Qatar, suggested that the Mass was an attempt by Mohammed bin Salman to improve his image following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 3, 2018.
Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 20, 2017. On Al-Issa's activities to advance interreligious dialog, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7368, On Social Media, Criticism Of Muslim World League Secretary-General's Condemnation Of Holocaust – But In Saudi Press, Support For It, March 6, 2018.
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 6, 2018.
 Elaph.com, March 8, 2018.
 Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), May 1, 2018.
 Vetogate.com, masrawy.com, dailymail.co.uk, May 5, 2018.
 Facebook.com/i24newsEN, November 15, 2018; Al-Sharq (Qatar), November 26, 2018.
 Aleteia.org, June 7, 2018; coptstoday.com, September 15, 2014.
 Economist.com, August 2, 2018.