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Timely Messages from Honored Guests

Is There Religious Freedom in Equal Measure in Christian and Muslim Countries?

Peter Riddell is Professorial Dean of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths of the Melbourne School of Theology in Australia.

There has been a rapid and substantial growth of Muslim minority communities in Western countries over the last 30 years. Britain is a case in point: In 1975, the Muslim community in the U.K. numbered just 400,000; in 2006 this figure had grown to over two million. Then, in Australia and Canada, whose census takers record religious affiliation, the Muslim communities essentially doubled in the 1990s.1 Furthermore, similar growth can be seen in other Western countries such as France, Germany, Denmark, Holland, and the United States—more evidence of a spirit of openness and tolerance in majority Christian societies towards the presence of Muslim minorities in their midst.

In contrast, the story of Christian presence in majority Muslim countries from 1975 to 2006 is largely a tale of flight.2 The Christian community in Lebanon, which represented a national majority for most of the 20th century, now constitutes just 40% of the population and continues to decline. The erosion of the Christian population of Egypt is well documented; Christian exodus from Sudan across borders is a matter of major international concern, and Christian presence in the Holy Land is a shadow of its former self. In all these locations, pressure from Muslim neighbors is a major cause for departure.

Minority places of worship are another topic of interest. In Britain, the number of mosques has grown from 18 in 1966 to well over 1,000 in 2006. These include splendid structures dominating the skyline, such as the Regents Park Mosque in London, the Edinburgh and Birmingham central mosques, and the East London Mosque, which broadcasts the Islamic call to prayer in the heart of one of the great capitals of old Christendom. Similarly, most of America’s over 1,200 mosques were built after 1980, often with funding from Saudi Arabia.3 And perhaps the most striking Muslim construction statement is the proposed 40,000-seat mosque, to be built next to the site of the 2012 London Olympics, for it would signal, to a massive television audience, Islam’s powerful presence in one of the West’s great cities.4

In contrast, Muslim majority countries are not nearly as open to the establishment and maintenance of non-Muslim houses of worship. Saudi Arabia provides a stark example: A fatwa5 issued on July 3, 2000, by the Permanent Council for Scholarly Research and Religious Legal Judgment (an organ of the Saudi Ministry of Religious Endowments) took a dim view of other faiths:

Any place designated for worship other than [that of] Islam is a place of heresy and error, for it is forbidden to worship Allah in any way other than the way that Allah has prescribed in Islam . . . [R]eligion necessitates the prohibition of unbelief, and this requires the prohibition of worshiping Allah in any way other than that of the Islamic shari’a. Included in this is the prohibition against building houses of worship according to the abrogated religious laws, Jewish or Christian or anything else . . .6

Such closed-mindedness is not limited to the ultra-conservative Saudis. In Malaysia, a country often touted as the leading light in Islamic pluralism, it is much easier to establish and maintain a functioning mosque than a functioning church. For example, in a 1992 survey of the Malaysian states of Johor and Perak, the ratio of mosques to Muslim worshippers was one to 800 while the ratio of non-Muslim places of worship to worshippers was one to 4,000.7 On the other side of the Malay peninsula, Abdul Hadi Awang, chief minister of the state of Terengganu, turned down a Catholic request to build a new church; he reasoned that a steeple and cross would be provocative and that he must say no in the interest of the Christians’ safety.8

The surge in numbers of Muslims residing in the West, and the rapid growth of mosques, is accompanied by the establishment of chairs and/or centers in Islamic studies in Western universities with funding from Muslim countries—for example, in Britain, the King Fahd Chair in Islamic Studies at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, affiliated with Oxford University. In the United States, the King Abdul Aziz Chair in Islamic Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has been funded from Saudi Arabia, and more recently, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud gave a sum of $20 million each to Harvard and Georgetown universities for expansion of their Islamic studies programs.9

Of course, Christian-endowed chairs and programs of Christian studies at major public universities in such countries as Egypt and Pakistan would be unthinkable. So once again, the disparity is striking. Consequently, Christians and Western governments should continually press for reciprocity from Muslim nations. It is only fair, given the great freedom and hospitality the West has shown to their own Muslim minorities.


Australia (1991 – 147,500; 2001 – 281,000); Canada (1991 – 253,265; 2001 – 579,645).


“Christian Numbers on Decline in the Middle East,” National Public Radio: Talk of the Nation, March 8, 2006, (accessed July 11, 2006).


Paul Sperry, “U.S.-Saudi Oil Imports Fund American Mosques,”, April 22, 2002, (accessed July 10, 2006).


“Giant Mosque for 40,000 May Be Built at London Olympics,” The Sunday Times, November 27, 2005,,,2087-1892780,00.html (accessed July 10, 2006).


A legal ruling by an authorized Islamic scholar.


“Special Dispatch Series - No. 1123: Official Saudi Fatwa of July 2000 Forbids Construction of Churches in Muslim Countries,” Middle East Media Research Institute Website, March 24, 2006, (accessed July 10, 2006).


Ng Kiok Nam, “Islam in Malaysia,” in Islam in Asia: Perspectives for Christian-Muslim Encounter, ed. J. P. Rajashekar and H. S. Wilson (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 1992), 100.


Anil Netto, “Malaysia: PAS Winning Few Hearts so Far,” Asia Times Online, March 6, 2004, (accessed July 10, 2006).


“Briefing No 42: Implications of Saudi Funding to Western Academic Institutions,” Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity Website, February 7, 2006, (accessed July 10, 2006).