By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - Christian bishops in Germany, Austria and Russia have sharply criticized 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 ruling by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh as an unacceptable denial of human rights to millions of foreign workers in the Gulf region.
Archbishop Mark of Yegoryevsk, head of the Russian Orthodox department for churches abroad, called the fatwa "alarming" in a statement on Tuesday. Such blunt criticism from mainstream Christian leaders of their Muslim counterparts is very rare.
Christian websites have reported Sheikh Abdulaziz, one of the most influential religious leaders in the Muslim world, 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 sheikh ruled that further church building should be banned and existing Christian houses of worship should be destroyed.
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, chairman of the German Bishops Conference, said the mufti "shows no respect for the religious freedom and free co-existence of religions", especially all the foreign laborers who made its economy work.
"It would be a slap in the face to these people if the few churches available to them were to be taken away," he said.
SHEIKH VS KING?
At least 3.5 million Christians live in the Gulf Arab region. They are mostly Catholic workers from India and the Philippines, but also Western expatriates of all denominations.
Saudi Arabia bans all non-Muslim houses of prayer, forcing Christians there to risk arrest by praying in private homes. There are churches for Christian minorities in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Yemen.
The bishops conference in Austria, where Saudi King Abdullah plans to open a controversial 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 practiced, 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 neighbors "will be surprised by the calls made by this sheikh and ignore them".
The Catholic Church has urged Muslim states in recent years to give Christian minorities in their countries the same freedom of religion that Muslims enjoy in Western countries.
There are few Orthodox Christians in the Gulf region, but the Moscow Patriarchate - which was mostly silent during the decades of Soviet communism that ended in 1991 - has become increasingly vocal in defending the rights of Christians around the world.
Bishop Paul Hinder, who oversees Catholic churches in the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yeman, told Catholic news agency KNA that the fatwa had not been widely publicized in Saudi Arabia. "What is worrying is that such statements have influence in part of the population," he said.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)