VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah held a historic meeting on Tuesday and discussed the situation of minority Christians in the Islamic country where the Vatican wants them to have more freedom.
At the first meeting between a Pope and a Saudi monarch, the two also discussed the need for greater collaboration between Christians, Muslims and Jews and prospects for a Middle East peace.
They spoke for about 30 minutes in the Pontiff’s private study with the help of interpreters in what both the Vatican and reporters described as a cordial atmosphere.
A Vatican statement said “the presence and hard work of Christians (in Saudi Arabia) was discussed” — seen as a clear reference to the Vatican’s concern over the Christian minority.
Vatican sources said before the meeting that they expected the Pope to raise his concern over the situation of Catholics and other Christians in Saudi Arabia.
The Vatican wants greater rights for the 1 million Catholics who live in Saudi Arabia, most of them migrant workers who are not allowed to practice their religion in public.
They are only allowed to worship in private places, usually homes, and cannot wear signs of their faith in public.
King Abdullah, custodian of Islam’s holiest sites in the cities of Mecca and Medina, wore his traditional white robes.
The Vatican said other topics discussed included inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue and “collaboration among Christians, Muslims and Jews for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, especially those which support the family”.
The Pope and the king also discussed the Middle East, particularly the need to find “a just solution to the conflicts that afflict the region, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian (conflict)”.
Muslims around the world protested last year after Benedict, speaking at a university in his native Germany, used a quote that associated Islam with violence.
In that speech at a university in Regensburg in his native Germany, Benedict quoted the Byzantine emperor Manuel Paleologus as saying to a Muslim:
“Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
The Pope later said he was misunderstood and has several times expressed esteem for Muslims.
At the end of the meeting, the king gave the Pope a gold and silver sword studded with precious jewels, in keeping with a bedouin custom the Saudis also follow when foreign leaders visit their country.
The king also presented Benedict with a small silver and gold statue depicting a palm tree and a man riding a camel.
In an interview with Reuters on the eve of the meeting, the bishop in charge of Catholics in Saudi Arabia called on the country to guarantee more freedom and security for minority Christians and allow more priests in to minister to the faithful.
“What I am hoping is that there can be more security and freedom for our people in a very low profile manner,” said Bishop Paul Hinder, a Swiss national who is based in Abu Dhabi.
“I am not expecting to be able to build a cathedral. But at least (we need) the freedom to worship in security,” he said.
Vatican officials often ask why church construction is banned in Saudi Arabia while Muslims can build mosques in Europe.