Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran said on Wednesday that too many Islamic countries bar Christians from building churches while Western states let Muslims build mosques freely.
The cardinal, who recently retired as the Vatican's foreign minister, told the French Catholic daily La Croix that Christianity and Islam faced "an enormous task" of learning to live together in mutual tolerance.
Stressing the need for respect for minorities, he singled out "the extreme case of Saudi Arabia, where freedom of religion is violated absolutely - no Christian churches and a ban on celebrating Mass, even in a private home".
"Just like Muslims can build their houses of prayer anywhere in the world, the faithful of other religions should be able to do so as well," the French-born cardinal added.
Tauran is the latest and highest-ranking Catholic official to voice concern about Christian relations with Muslims, an issue seen as central for whoever succeeds the ailing Pope John Paul II.
"Just like Muslims can build their houses of prayer anywhere in the world, the faithful of other religions should be able to do so as well"
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran,
Leading church figures have increasingly expressed concern about Islam in view of friction between Muslims and Christians in Africa and the Middle East, and the sometimes difficult integration of Muslim minorities in traditionally Christian Europe.
Several cardinals have cited relations with Islam as a key issue for the next papacy, akin to the Communist challenge at the beginning of the Polish pope's reign.
International human rights organsations have also criticised Muslim countries, and especially Saudi Arabia, for impeding freedom of religion.
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch said public demonstration of religious affiliation is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, except for Muslims who follow the Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam.
HRW said the kingdom’s Shia Muslim minority suffers particularly acute discrimination, and the construction of Shia mosques and religious community centres is restricted.
Saudi Arabia has rejected criticism of its ban on churches in the past, arguing the Vatican would not let mosques be built on its land.
Officials from the kingdom have described the criticism as a form of "cultural imperialism".
However, Muslim scholars around the world have often condemned countries like Saudi Arabia for denying freedom of religion, which they argue is enshrined in Islam.
"There are plenty of good examples from the Muslim world as well. Iran, for example, has automatic seats in its parliament for Jews and Christians. Where is that the case in the West?"
Islamic Human Rights Commission
They have said that Islamic history is replete with examples of peaceful inter-religious co-existence, such as in Muslim Spain.
And Masood Shadjareh, of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission, said that abuses in Muslim countries should not be an excuse for Islamophobia.
"It's true that certain Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia, don't treat Christians very well," he said. "But Saudi Arabia is a deeply sectarian society which discriminates against its own Shia community and doesn't even treat its own citizens very well.
"This should, of course, be condemned but there are plenty of good examples from the Muslim world as well. Iran, for example, has automatic seats in its parliament for Jews and Christians. Where is that the case in the West?"