PARIS (Reuters) – Turkey’s top Muslim cleric has stepped into an international row over Christianity on the Arabian Peninsula, rejecting comments attributed to the Saudi grand mufti that all churches there should be destroyed.

Mehmet Gormez, head of the Religious Affairs Directorate in Ankara, told a Turkish newspaper that Islam respected the rights of other faiths and calls for the destruction of churches went against centuries of tolerance.

Reports that Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh had issued a fatwa, or religious order, against churches last month prompted protests from Christian bishops in Austria, Germany and Russia and provoked a storm on Christian websites around the world.

Gormez, in an interview published by Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman on Friday, said: “The mentioned opinion is evidently against the aims of Islam (and) against the Muslim tradition’s established practice of respecting non-Muslims’ rights as well.”

“We strongly believe that this declaration has left dark shadows upon the concept of rights and freedoms in Islam that have always been observed,” he added.

Saudi Arabia does not allow churches on its territory, citing a saying of the Prophet Mohammad that there cannot be two religions on the Arabian Peninsula. But neighbouring Gulf states have long had churches and some allow new ones to be built.

PERSONAL OPINION OR OFFICIAL STATEMENT?

The row started when Kuwaiti daily newspaper Al-Anba on March 11 quoted the grand mufti as saying churches were not allowed on the Arabian Peninsula and existing ones should be demolished.

“Kuwait is part of the Arabian Peninsula, and the Arabian Peninsula must demolish any churches that exist, because… the Prophet instructed us that there is no place for two religions in,” Shaikh said according to a copy of the Al-Anba interview published by the Middle East Media Research Institute.

The interview went unnoticed in local media but was picked up in Arabic and English translation by websites outside Kuwait, some of which described the statement as a fatwa.

The reports of Shaikh’s comment provoked rare and sharp criticism from leading bishops in the Russian Orthodox Church and Catholic churches in Germany and Austria.

German Archbishop Robert Zollitsch said it “shows no respect for the religious freedom and free co-existence of religions”, especially concerning foreign workers.

At least 3.5 million Christians live in the Gulf Arab region, mostly Catholic workers from India and the Philippines.

It was not clear how the reported statement came to be described as a fatwa, which would make it an official ruling reflecting the view of Saudi Islam, rather than Shaikh’s personal opinion.

A Saudi official, who asked not to be named, noted that fatwas were officially issued by the Dar al Iftaa, the office responsible for such religious rulings, and said no such document could be found in its records.

He declined to say more on the issue and Shaikh was not available for a comment.

(Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif in Jeddah, Angus McDowall in Riyad and Sylvia Westall in Kuwait; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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