• Secret negotiations follow King Abdullah's Rome visit
• John Hooper in Rome
• The Guardian, Tuesday March 18 2008
The Vatican has been holding secret talks with the Saudi Arabian authorities on building churches in Muhammad's homeland, according to one of Pope Benedict's most senior Middle East representatives. Archbishop Paul-Mounged El-Hashem said: "Discussions are under way to allow the construction of churches in the kingdom. We cannot forecast the outcome."
But, speaking to the news agency Agence France-Presse, the Lebanese prelate, the Pope's envoy in the Gulf, added: "There are around three or four million Christians in Saudi Arabia, and we hope they will have churches."
At the Vatican, the Pope's spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said: "If we manage to obtain authorisation for the construction of the first church, it will be an outcome of historic dimensions."
The opening last Friday of the first church in Qatar left Saudi Arabia as the only country in the region that still bans the building of churches and all forms of open Christian worship. However the construction of even one church on Saudi territory would outrage Islamist militants. Saudi Arabia - home to Islam's holiest sites, at Mecca and Medina - is regarded by Muslims as sacred soil.
The Saudi authorities, inspired by the rigorous doctrine of Wahhabism, ban all non-Muslim religious rituals and materials. Bibles and crucifixes are confiscated at points of entry to the kingdom.
Diplomats in Rome said talks on the building of churches would be consistent with recent developments. Saudi Arabia is among the few countries that do not have diplomatic links with the Vatican, but sources in Rome say the Saudis are keen to establish formal relations. Last November, King Abdullah became the first Saudi monarch to visit the Vatican.
The Vatican demands religious freedom as a condition for the opening of diplomatic relations. Pope Benedict has made it one of the chief aims of his papacy to press for "reciprocity" of treatment by Muslims of Christians.
Vatican officials note privately that while Muslims are free to worship openly in Europe, Roman Catholics are subject to official and unofficial restrictions in many Muslim countries.
Christians - mainly foreign workers - account for almost 4% of the Saudi population. Estimates of the number of Roman Catholics range up to 900,000.
In Qatar last Saturday, some 15,000 people attended an inaugural mass at the country's first church. Our Lady of the Rosary in Doha, which has no or crosses on its exterior, is one of five Christian places of worship planned in the state, which borders Saudi Arabia.