Vatican City (AsiaNews) – In the first meeting between a Saudi monarch and a pope, Benedict XVI and Saudi King Abdullah in 30-minute tête-à-tête discussed a “just solution” to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and, surprisingly, about the “importance of collaboration between Christians, Muslims and Jews for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values.” However, only the Vatican mentioned the “positive and industrious presence of Christians” in Saudi Arabia.
Even though King Abdullah met John Paul II in a previous trip to Italy in May 1999 when he was deputy defence minister and commander of the National Guard, this event is important in and of itself because of its official nature.
For his part Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal met John Paul II three times, and last September 6 he met Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo.
Today’s meeting between the Saudi king, who is the custodian of the two holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah, and the leader of the world’s Catholics was called historic in the Arab press.
Arab News for instance writes that the talks are “expected to focus on Islam-Christian relations and the need for believers of all faiths to work together for peace.”
In its own press release, the Vatican noted that “the commitment to inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue aimed at peaceful and fruitful coexistence between individuals and peoples was reiterated, as was the importance of collaboration between Christians, Muslims and Jews for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, especially in support of the family.” Except for the unexpected reference to Jews, the statement reflects what was largely expected.
A reference to the Middle East was also not a surprise. The Pope frequently mentions the region and the Saudi monarch is directly involved in the Arab League’s peace plan with Israel which calls for an Israeli pullout from the territories it occupied in 1967 as well as a just solution to the Jerusalem question and Palestinian refugee problem.
Currently, King Abdullah is on a 13-day European tour that has already taken him to Great Britain and which will see him travel to Germany and Turkey in order to back Palestinian rights ahead of the conference in Annapolis (US) designed to address the main issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians.
The Holy See was also expected to raise the issue of Christians living in Saudi Arabia. In its communiqué “Vatican authorities expressed their hope for the prosperity of all the inhabitants of the country, and mention was made of the positive and industrious presence of Christians.”
Some hoped for more; still it was important to see that for the first time a press release about a meeting with a Saudi leader, in this case the king, Christians living in an exclusively Muslim country were actually mentioned. In fact, about 1.5 to 2.5 million Christians live in the country as a result of immigration. But they are not allowed to have religious books and other items like crucifixes and rosaries, etc. There are no churches or priests (except in embassies) anywhere in the kingdom and no one is allowed to meet for prayer in private homes. All this is justified on the pretext that the whole of Saudi Arabia is a mosque. Hence even the smallest of chapels remains a pipe dream. And Saudis claim that accepting a church in the kingdom would be like accepting a mosque inside the Vatican.
For all these reasons the Vatican has pointed the finger in the past at Saudi Arabia as one of the countries that least respects religious freedom.
None of this was mentioned today. The issue of diplomatic relations between the two parties, which still have no formal ties, was also not raised.
The Saudi sovereign subsequently went on to meet with Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone S.D.B. who was accompanied by Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, secretary for Relations with States. Their meeting “took place in a cordial atmosphere,” something both sides dearly wanted.
The Pope, who walked towards Abdullah in the Sala del Tronetto, clasped with both hands those of the Wahhabi monarch. The latter, dressed in the national blue attire with a white and golden mantle, gave the Pope a sword in gold and silver and a small statuette’s, also in gold and silver, depicting a man on a camel under a palm tree. (FP)