Being Franciscan in Saudi Arabia

One of my secret delights as a Franciscan on my Saudi Arabia trip was to be retracing the steps of Francis in my journey. St. Francis of Assisi travelled to Egypt during the Fifth Crusade, I believe. Originally, he believed he was going there to be martyred, but after he surveyed the Christian troops amassed in Egypt and the deplorable state of their behavior, he tried to convince the papal legate Pelagius and the Christian forces to cease fighting. The Christians were badly outnumbered and were being massacred, and the Egyptian sultan had offered generous terms of peace, but Pelagius refused to stop the Crusade.

In an incredible act of bravery, Francis and a fellow brother travelled to meet the Sultan, expecting to be beheaded, since that was what happened to Christians at the time. Although there are no records of the actual exchanges between Francis and the Sultan, there are documents of their mutual reactions to the encounter. Both were duly impressed by the other, despite the fact that Francis was unsuccessful in converting the Sultan to Christianity.

Obviously, I had no intention of converting anyone to Christianity in Saudi Arabia, and not only because proselytizing is illegal there. I was there as a guest of the Kingdom to learn what I could. I was aware, however, that I had been invited from a Christian institution and that my hosts expected me to be Christian, so I considered myself a witness for Christianity, at least in my demeanor, my love of neighbor, my hope for reconciliation, and so on.

My Franciscan life was slightly complicated by the fact that the open practice of Christianity is not permitted in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. State Department web site explained that one cannot wear crosses in the open or carry Bibles or bring reading materials contrary to Islam in Saudi Arabia.

That was slightly complicated for Yale Divinity School students who need to read for exams in the Bible, Christian history, theology, etc. Fortunately, when we checked with our trip hosts, they said we could bring our textbooks. But I was told not to wear my cross and not to bring my prayer book or Bible.

I didn’t mind taking off my Franciscan cross, but going without a Bible and prayer book made it difficult for me to pray the Daily Office that all Franciscans (and many other Christians) pray every day. I didn’t want to take the chance of having my Bible or Prayer Book confiscated since both have great sentimental value, so I left them at home. But I did download PDF files for Morning Prayer onto my laptop, and I read Morning Prayer in secret in my hotel room. This was really no different from my praying routine on the road anywhere else, except that I had to hide it.

So when the muezzin sang his call to prayer to Muslims at sunrise every morning, I was reading prayers silently in my room and hoping, praying that Muslims and Christians will always make room and time for one another to pray. And when I got back to Morning Prayer at Berkeley House the next Monday morning, I realized how incredibly lucky and blessed I was to pray in public and in community with fellow Christians.

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