Christian bishops in Germany, Austria and Russia have criticised Saudi Arabia's top religious official after reports that he issued a fatwa saying all churches on the Arabian Peninsula should be destroyed.
In separate statements on Friday, the Roman Catholic bishops in Germany and Austria slammed the fatwa by Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh.
Archbishop Mark of Yegoryevsk, head of the Russian Orthodox department for churches abroad, called the fatwa "alarming" in a statement on Tuesday.
Christian websites have reported Al Shaikh, one of the most influential religious leaders, issued the fatwa last week in response to a Kuwaiti lawmaker who asked if Kuwait could ban church construction in Kuwait. Citing Arab-language media reports, they say the Al Shaikh ruled that further church building should be banned and existing Christian houses of worship should be destroyed.
At least 3.5 million Christians live in the Gulf region and there are churches in the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Yemen. The Bishops Conference in Austria, where Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz plans to open a centre for interfaith dialogue, demanded an official explanation from Riyadh.
"How could the grand mufti issue a fatwa of such importance behind the back of his king?" they asked.
"We see a contradiction between the dialogue being practised, the efforts of the king and those of his top mufti." In Moscow, Archbishop Mark told the Interfax news agency he hoped that Saudi Arabia's neighbours "will be surprised by the calls made by Al Shaikh and ignore them".
Bishop Paul Hinder, who oversees the Catholic churches in the UAE, Oman and Yemen, told Catholic news agency KNA that the fatwa had not been widely publicised in Saudi Arabia.
"What is worrying is that such statements have influence in part of the population," he said