Saudi Arabia welcomes first Christian scholar to conservative university


From the Christian Science Monitor. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - In a country that endorses Islam as the official religion, bans conversion to other religions, and forbids Christian proselytizing, Saudi Arabia's recent welcome of an American Christian scholar is a landmark.

Leonard Swidler, a professor of Roman Catholic thought and interreligious dialogue at Philadelphia's Temple University, is the first such scholar invited to exchange views with faculty at Al Imam Muhammed bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh – the citadel of Saudi Arabia's ultraconservative brand of Islam.

Dr. Swidler's visit in late June underscores a shift toward greater openness in some official Saudi religious institutions, which previously had been leery of contact with outsiders of different faiths.

"Maybe it's not exciting for some people, but it's a very big change in Saudi Arabia," says Fahad al-Alhomoudi, a faculty member at Al Imam who helped arrange Swidler's visit.

Swidler called his meetings at Al Imam campus "kind of a breakthrough" during an interview here. "The opportunity to meet with 40 Saudi professors in the area of interreligious dialogue for me was quite extraordinary," he says. Ten of the 40 were women, who participated via videoconferencing.

"I would say that we are experiencing a tipping point right now in relations in the field of religion between the West ... and Islam," added Swidler, a world-recognized expert in interreligious dialogue. "I mean, you can't get more heartlander than Saudi Arabia, as far as Islam is concerned."

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