Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is a religious monarchy and claims to be a purely Salafist and theocratic nation. All citizens must be Muslims. Although Christianity once had a significant presence in the Arabian Peninsula, today, the vast majority of Christians in the KSA are expatriate migrants from South and East Asia, especially the Philippines. Human rights advocates claim that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia, and the nation is ranked number two in a recent Pew Research Center Forum that studies state-sponsored religious oppression. Christian services and homes are frequently raided, and Muslim officials consider any religious activity highly suspicious, even offensive.

Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Saudi Arabia 

Egypt, Libya, Israel-Palestine, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkish-Occupied Cyprus

Panel: Findings from the Middle East & North Africa 
Moderator: Christian Sahner, University of Cambridge
Speakers: Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma
Elizabeth Prodromou, Tufts University
Mariz Tadros, University of Sussex
Christian Van Gorder, Baylor University

Christian Demographics

Today, approximately 93 percent of the population of Saudi Arabia is Muslim. The vast majority of Christians are expatriate workers from countries in Africa and South and East Asia such as the Philippines. Even as expatriate residents constitute over 30 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population of 35 million, Christians are a minority. The NGO Open Doors USA estimates that 1.2 million Christians account for 3.4 percent of the nation’s population. Other estimates suggest that there are as many as 3.5 million Christian workers in Saudi Arabia. However, it is difficult to estimate: only Wahhabi Islam is recognized by the Kingdom, so all polls of religious preference must be informal. Additionally, many Christians have recently left Saudi Arabia due to a tax on expatriates introduced in 2019 and to the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Of the expatriate Christians who remain, over 90 percent are Roman Catholic. In 2007, based on an informal poll, the Vatican suggested that these expatriates make Saudi Arabia the second largest Catholic nation in the Middle East, with around 1.5 million Catholics.

History of the Christian Community

Christianity came to the Arabian Peninsula in the first century and had a significant presence there (particularly in Southern Arabia) before the rise of Islam. Most Arab Christians left the peninsula after the rise of Islam, but Christianity returned to the region in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries through the efforts of missions, missionary hospitals, and educational centers.

Current Situation of the Christian Community

Saudi Arabia’s rulers, King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his son, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, claim to lead the nation by Sharia law and uphold a strict form of Salafi Islam that offers minimal tolerance for non-Islamic religious practice. Muhammad bin Salman, though second-ranked to the aging King Salman, has emerged as the Kingdom’s de facto leader since his elevation to Crown Prince in 2017. Bin Salman has cultivated a public image as a reformer while consolidating his power and moving Saudi Arabia towards absolute monarchy. In part through recent reforms, conditions for Christians have marginally improved, although the Saudi government continues to fail to recognize religious freedoms.

Non-Muslims may not hold public religious services or construct places of worship. Nonetheless, a small minority of expatriate Christians and an even smaller number of Muslim converts to Christianity meet in homes to pray and to study the Bible. Authorities frequently raid Christian homes: officials disapprove of any signs of non-Muslim religious activity. Consequently, Christians cannot celebrate holidays such as Christmas or visibly wear crosses. Even non-Arab visitors face scrutiny: in 2015, for instance, a visiting Colombian soccer player was arrested for his visible religious tattoos, which included the face of Jesus. Muslims who convert to Christianity must do so in secret: the state may impose the death penalty for apostasy, while legal loopholes permit honor killings, thus allowing family members to murder converts. In a positive development in April 2016, Saudi Arabia barred its religious police from making arrests or pursuing criminal investigations. The religious police must now report suspected crimes to civil authorities. 

In 2016, Muhammed bin Salman introduced Saudi Vision 2030, a long-term plan to reduce the nation’s economic dependence on oil and to increase Saudi Arabia’s international influence. Through Vision 2030, Muhammed bin Salman reveals a fusion of religious, social and geopolitical aspirations: he aims to make Saudi Arabia, site of the two holiest places in Islam, the center of the Islamic world, just as he aims to make Saudi Arabia a regional superpower in the Middle East. Even as Vision 2030 emphasizes “collective national effort” while aiming to increase the workforce participation of Saudi women and hailing Saudi youth as “architects” of the nation’s future, it ignores the role that expatriate laborers, who make up over 31 percent of the population and are often Christian, play within the domestic economy.  

The Covid19 pandemic has increased the suffering of expatriate workers. The NGO Open Doors USA reported that Covid19 cases are especially concentrated in migrant communities where sanitation and social distancing measures are difficult to achieve. As part of its strategy to contain Covid19, the Saudi government has held tens of thousands of migrants in subpar detention camps, drawing condemnation from the European Parliament in 2020. An unknown but significant number of migrant detainees have died due to poor conditions and abuse.

Muhammad bin Salman’s reforms have allowed women increasing rights. In 2015, women gained the right to vote and stand as candidates in municipal elections; in 2018, women were given the ability to drive and to enter sports stadiums; and in 2019, women were given the right to obtain passports and travel abroad without the permission of a male guardian. Nonetheless, under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, women must still obtain their guardian’s permission to be married or released from prison. Consequently, Christian women face pressures which force them to hold their religious beliefs in secret. 

Responses to Persecution

Christians in Saudi Arabia have experienced persecution for centuries and have consequently developed strategies for long-term response that are both grounded in a theological framework that regards tribulation as integral to their spiritual health and supported by the central conviction that God is in control. 

Christians in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to practice their faith publicly. A small minority of Christians meet quietly for prayer, but most instead observe their faith alone to avoid attracting hostility from authorities. Many Christians even renounce their faith publicly while retaining a private conviction in their hearts. This approach helps Christians avoid a numbing sense of powerlessness by offering a level of disengagement from the unending trauma of repression. Similarly, most Christians avoid proselytism of any kind.

Christians also carefully avoid criticizing the government or expressing hatred toward oppressors, instead living out the message of “rendering unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar.” Because of inherent cultural suspicion, they must prove beyond question that they are not agents of Western political goals. As such, they avoid all political debate that might seem to evoke secularism or to oppose ideas that the government emphatically supports. In order to survive, Christians accept without question the assumption held by their neighbors that “Islam must rule.Church leaders, despite often being forced to shepherd Saudi Arabia’s Christians from abroad, have engaged in very limited advocacy for basic religious rights. In November 2007, prior to an unprecedented meeting between Pope Benedict and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Bishop Paul Hinder, then Vicar Apostolic of Arabia, asked that the Saudi Arabian government provide “security and freedom for [Christians] in a very low profile manner.” Similarly, the Egyptian Coptic Church has emerged as an advocate for Coptic Christians in Saudi Arabia. After a 2018 meeting between Coptic Pope Tawadros II and the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, a senior Coptic Bishop was able to visit Riyadh and celebrate a liturgy. In response to the visit, Coptic leaders offered high praise for the Saudi government and expressed optimism that restrictions on religious freedom would be loosened.

Finally, Christians in Saudi Arabia also employ strategies of language when dealing with persecution. Since Arabic is the language of the Qur’an, Christians avoid offending Muslims by conducting services exclusively in languages other than Arabic. Most Christians in Saudi Arabia are non-native anyway, but the few indigenous Arab Christians use only “Modern Standard Arabic” and rarely formal “Qur’anic Arabic” in their devotions.


This country profile draws on research by Dr. Christian Van Gorder and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project. It was updated by Joseph London at the University of Notre Dame in August 2022.