Saudi Arabia Bans National Geographic Cover Featuring Pope Francis
Pope Francis has won praise around the world for advancing a more humble, tolerant version of Catholicism, but there’s one country that he evidently hasn’t won over. Saudi Arabia banned the August issue of the National Geographic’s Arabic edition, whose cover featured Francis standing in the Sistine Chapel, due to what the magazine said were ...
Pope Francis has won praise around the world for advancing a more humble, tolerant version of Catholicism, but there’s one country that he evidently hasn’t won over. Saudi Arabia banned the August issue of the National Geographic’s Arabic edition, whose cover featured Francis standing in the Sistine Chapel, due to what the magazine said were “cultural reasons.”
“Dear readers in Saudi Arabia, we apologize that you did not receive August’s magazine,” read a statement published on National Geographic’s Arabic-language Twitter account, from the editor in chief, Alsaad Omar al-Menhaly. “According to the distribution company, the magazine was refused entry for cultural reasons.”
The very act of putting the Vicar of Christ on a magazine cover could have been controversial enough for senior officials from a country where mosque and state are closely intertwined. But Saudi censors might have also seen dangerous implications for the Wahhabi state in how National Geographic framed its coverage, as the cover referred to Francis leading a “quiet revolution” to reform the Catholic Church.
An editor’s note published in National Geographic’s Arabic edition in August lauded Pope Francis for moving to revitalize his church by making changes that “will dislodge some of the ingrained principles of the followers of the church.” Its argument, however, went beyond Catholicism: It made the case that religious institutions must adapt to a rapidly changing world. Religious pillars, the article argued, “are only tools aimed at preserving something, and if they are no longer capable of that, they must be altered.”
It’s not hard to see why that could be read as a challenge to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious authorities, who insist on a literal interpretation of the Quran. Wahhabis strive for a return to the practices of the first generations of Muslims from the seventh century; the notion that religion should be fluid and change with the times is precisely the idea that they are arrayed against.
But as National Geographic readers in Saudi Arabia wait in vain for their August issue to show up in their mailbox, Pope Francis is trying to build bridges to the Muslim world. He has contended that Islam is a religion of peace, and more recently called on European parishes to give shelter to the refugees from the Middle East, many of them Muslims fleeing the war in Syria.
“Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees who are fleeing death by war and by hunger, and who are on a path toward a hope for life, the Gospel calls us to be neighbors to the smallest and most abandoned, to give them concrete hope,” he said.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has taken in zero refugees from Syria.