Saudi king holds historic talks with pope

Pope Benedict XVI raised the issue of Christians living in Saudi Arabia in a historic meeting Tuesday with King Abdullah, the first monarch of the conservative Muslim kingdom to visit the Vatican. During their talks, which also touched on conflicts in the Middle East, the pope highlighted “the positive and hard-working presence of the Christians” in Saudi Arabia, a Vatican communique said.

The two men also stressed “the value of collaboration between Christians, Muslims and Jews” and renewed a commitment to “intercultural and inter-faith dialogue with the goal of peaceful and fruitful coexistence,” the statement said.

The Holy See does not have diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam’s holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina and applies a strict interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism in the kingdom.

The question of religious freedoms for the roughly 1 million Christians and other non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia remains an extremely sensitive one.

In September, the United States State Department’s annual report on religious freedoms noted some improvement in “specific areas” in Saudi Arabia but said overall government policies continued to place “severe restrictions on religious freedom.”

It mentioned discrimination against non-Muslims, or against some Muslims with practices other than Wahhabism, citing allegations of harassment, abuse and “even killings.”

The groundbreaking talks were not King Abdullah’s first contact with the head of the Roman Catholic Church, since he met Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, in 1999 when he was crown prince to his half-brother, King Fahd.

King Abdullah, 84, and the 80-year-old pontiff also exchanged “ideas on the Middle East and the need to find a fair solution to the conflicts afflicting the region, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the Vatican communique said.

Abdullah offered Benedict a gold sword encrusted with stones and accepted a 16th-century engraving of the Vatican from the pope.

Afterward the Saudi monarch, who was accompanied by a 12-strong delegation, met with the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Italian Premier Romano Prodi, who traveled to Riyadh in April, was to meet the Saudi king later Tuesday, while Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema was to have talks with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Abdullah, who ascended the throne two years ago, arrived in Rome late Monday following a lavish three-day visit to London at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II, the first by a Saudi monarch in 20 years.

Abdullah’s meeting with the pope came as relations between the Vatican and the Muslim world have eased since the crisis provoked in September 2006 when Benedict appeared to link Islam with violence in a speech at Regensburg University, Germany.

The lecture sparked days of sometimes violent protests in Muslim countries, prompting the pontiff to say that he was “deeply sorry” for any offense and attributing Muslim anger to an “unfortunate misunderstanding.” King Abdullah will travel on to Germany and Turkey before returning home.

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