As churches burn in Pakistan, world leaders need to talk more about tolerance and less about economics, says Joseph Kelly

The news that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has invited Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for an official visit later this year has met with an understandable amount of dismay and concern. As the two countries seek to deepen economic ties, Downing Street said that Mr Sunak and the crown prince spoke yesterday (Thursday) to discuss trade, investment, defence and security cooperation.

The official visit is expected to take place sometime in October.

As soon as the announcement was made, opposition politicians and human rights groups condemned the invitation, making particular reference to the belief that bin Salman ordered the murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. On 2nd October 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents related to his planned marriage but was never seen leaving. Unknown to the Saudis, the consulate had been bugged by Turkish intelligence and both the planning and the execution were recorded. After being strangled his body may have been dismembered and dissolved in acid, according to Turkish officials, and his last words captured on an audio recording released by the Turkish government were reported as “I can’t breathe”. Prince bin Salman has always claimed that the assassination was a ‘rogue’ operation, but the affair has severely damaged his international reputation.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped global leaders from lining up to cut deals with Saudi Arabia, due mostly to the kingdom’s pivotal power in the global oil supply chain, and insatiable appetite for modern hi-tech weaponry. According to analysis by the Campaign Against Arms Trade, BAE Systems for instance sold £15bn worth of arms and services to Saudi Arabia between 2015 to 2019, and thousands of British jobs are said to be contingent on such sales.

Much of this weaponry has been used in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, which entered its sixth murderous year in March, and has been described by the UN as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”. Saudi’s poor and oppressive approach to human rights within the country has also caused much global concern. Against this background politicians contemplating the October visit may be content to allow the media and campaigners to focus on the Jamal Khashoggi affair, as a distraction from broader conversations about human rights generally.

Many UK politicians seem happy to navigate the uncomfortable and dysfunctional relationship we have with Saudi Arabia, and many other questionable regimes, on the basis that the objectives being achieved outweigh the damage being done. It’s no secret for instance that the Saudis offer invaluable intelligence in the fight against fanatical Islamist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaida, and their financial involvement with Premier League football, horse racing and other sports pulls them into the inner fabric of British society. Such influence leads many to caste a blind eye to a quasi-feudal regime that has a quite appalling record on human rights.

Since the end of the Second World War there has been latent drive towards inculcating other regimes and cultures, on the assumption that a combination of a rolling dialogue and financial incentivisation will eventually pull countries into the Westernised model of society. Until they pulled out of Russia in March last year after Ukraine sanctions hit, Rolls Royce cited Moscow as one of its most lucrative sales territories – which makes the point of how far the West pulled the Soviets since the Cold War, but equally cautions that decadence and home comforts never stopped a war breaking out.

One of the difficulties for anyone pushing the post-war, Western model of liberal democracy is that some other nations simply don’t see themselves that way, and the global map no longer orbits around Greenwich; The certainties and assumptions that drove the British Empire model of politics, commerce and social morality have long gone. Unfortunately so too has the dominance of Christianity, and the Narazene model of ethics. For many societies, the values  being promulgated by the West simply no longer appeal, and in some cases are even been seen as dangerously contrary to other societal models.

When one hears about the destruction of Christian churches in Pakistan this week, it’s easy to assume that the widespread protests and violence has a exclusively anti-Christian intent – when more likely it was a random event that ignited an already deep, latent anger at wider conditions of depravation, inequality and suffering within the country. If it is correct that two Christian men did tear pages from the Quran and wrote blasphemous messages on them the public outcry is understandable, given the well-known respect that is held for this most sacred of Islamic texts. One also has to remember that Pakistan is the only country to have been created in the name of Islam; 96% of the population is Muslim and – According to a 2013 Pew Research Center (PEW) opinion poll, a majority of Pakistanis support making Sharia the official law of the land. Whilst this (and even Sharia Law) doesn’t in any way justify the mistreatment or persecution of fellow humans, this week’s riots and church burnings do make the point that, in some countries at least, religious considerations have a primacy of place that has become anathema in the so-called liberated, democratic West. 

Such incidents have particular implications for we Catholics, as we always been inclined to push our theology out into the marketplace and in recent centuries have even regarded it as our solemn obligation to evangelise and convert. In a time where other nations seemed compliant, and even sentient, the notion that Christianisation was redemption not only for the soul but for the body seemed self-evident. But times have changed. What was once seen as bringing education to the the uneducated is now being challenged at a fundamental level by cultures and societies that we can no longer dismiss as ‘primitive’, and that have developed their own answers and solutions to the big problems of life and immortality.

In simple terms life on this planet has become a lot more complex and diverse, and the challenge for the Christian is how do we respond to this? Take Saudi Arabia as a good example – the fundamentalist Western Christian will tell us that an active homosexual is deprived of salvation and is destined for an eternity of unimaginable suffering in the fires of hell, but as a human rights advocate will baulk at the Saudi notion of executing them. To the Western mind the difference is obvious, to the Saudi it’s more likely semantics, or even hypocrisy. Such is the cultural divergence which now drives the world.

There was a perfect illustration of this dilemma last week, as Pope Francis answered journalists questions on his flight home to Rome after World Youth Day in Lisbon. During what has become a regular ritual of highly candid and free-wheeling exchanges in papal flights, one reporter asked His Holiness quite directly and bluntly: “Does the Catholic Church welcome gay people?” Pope Francis response was instant and intuitive: “Everyone, everyone, everyone!”. His comments gave rise to numerous newspaper and internet headlines – many of them from Catholic publishers – along the theme of “Pope says Church is open to gays”, “We won’t say no to gays, says Pope” and so on.

Somewhat less reported was the follow-up question from the reporter. Pressed on whether or not it was incoherent that some people – such as gay people and women – could not receive some Sacraments, Pope Francis said:

“The Church is open to everyone but there are laws that regulate life inside the Church. According to the legislation, they cannot partake in (some) sacraments. This does not mean that it is closed. Each person encounters God in their own way inside the Church.”

Whilst this may have make perfect sense to our Holy Father, and to many Catholics, others could be forgiven for thinking that the message here was that ‘Our Church is open, but it is also closed, depending on what you are.’

Such vagaries are important because they condition the way in which the world sees our Christian faith, and responds to it. In particular they can bring Christianity into an unwelcome conflict with other faiths, especially where such doctrinal ambiguities are anathema. Whatever one’s criticisms of Islam, for instance, you can hardly say you don’t know the consequences of immoral actions. Such certainties used to be fundamental to Christianity, which gave it an edge in dealing with the world, but today we have become less assured, and thus evangelisation is a far more nuanced process.

I’m sure politicians would say that’s exactly the road they’re travelling when dealing with other nations and heads of state. But nuanced politics is an equally challenging and dangerous process, especially if multi-billion pound business deals are done at the cost of turning a blind eye to blatant human rights abuses, and in particular when moral and spiritual concerns are no longer at the fore when it comes to international diplomacy. And that’s what makes the Sunak/ bin Salman encounters interesting, as both men claim to put their faith at the centre of what they do. Rishi Sunak is on record as saying that his Hindu faith guides him in “every aspect” of his life and gives him the “courage, strength and resilience” to be Prime Minister. for his part Crown Prince bin Salman has pledged his commitment to have Saudi Arabia start “returning to what we were before—a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world”, a position that has however enraged ultra-conservative muslims in his country who charge that he has ‘sidelined’ Islamic law.)

As it happens bin Salman isn’t the only global leader in the region who believes that accommodations can be found between Islamic and Western values. In the neighbouring United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (ranked as the 8th most influential Muslim in the world) has championed a highly moderate, Westernised form of religious practice in a country where Islam is still the official religion and there are unambiguous laws against blasphemy, proselytising by non-Muslims, and conversions away from Islam. Mohamed has also visited Pope Francis twice and in February 2019 welcomed the Pope to the UAE, where he held the first Papal Mass to be celebrated in the Arabian Peninsula at Zayed Sports City in which 180,000 worshippers from 100 countries, including 4,000 Muslims, were present.

Such encounters across religious divides need to become increasingly frequent in our globalised and rapidly developing world, and they really ought to become the basis of better narratives about the human condition than the present flawed preoccupation with ‘wokeness’ and ‘inclusivity’. If we are to resolve some of the deepest problems that separate our human family, pursuing a doctrine that asserts that only my my world view counts and all others are effectively meaningless and irrelevant will not build a better society. Neither will the economic view that if we can just sort out the distribution of wealth and resources, all else in the human condition will automatically fall into place.

Resolving deep and fundamental differences in a world where opinions on the social order of things have become so deeply divergent and often conflicting is no going to be easy task, but such considerations can’t be simply left at the door when global leaders come together. Yes, tolerance has to be exercised, but so does dignity and humanity – and dignity and humanity calls for basic human rights to be the foundation of any meaningful conversations between nations.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian