ROME, Nov. 6 — Pope Benedict XVI and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia clasped hands at the Vatican on Tuesday in the first meeting ever between a pope and the Saudi monarch, who is entrusted to protect Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammad and the center of the Islamic world.
The two met for half an hour, speaking through interpreters, in a conversation that a Vatican press release later said was cordial and covered themes from the “value of collaboration between Christians, Muslims and Jews for promoting peace” and “the necessity of finding a just solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Marco Politi, the Vatican correspondent for La Repubblica and a biographer of Pope John Paul II, said, “I think it is extraordinarily important that an official communiqué from the Vatican and an important Islamic state like Saudi Arabia mentions ‘cooperation’ between Christians Muslims and Jews — not dialogue but cooperation.”
The meeting, presaged by an upbeat front-page story in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper, was also a clear attempt by the Vatican to repair damage done by the pope’s earlier statement on Islam, which had been seen as insensitive if not incendiary in the Arab world.
In a speech in Regensburg, Germany, a little over a year ago, Benedict quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who called Islam “evil and inhuman.” The comment led to protests in Islamic nations, and prompted some Islamic states to recall their ambassadors to the Vatican. Firebombers attacked churches in the West Bank and Gaza, gunmen killed an Italian nun in Somalia, and the pope himself was threatened. The Vatican expressed “deepest regrets” but said the remark had been misinterpreted in a way that “absolutely did not correspond” to the pope’s intentions.
The article in the Vatican newspaper seemed to open the door for a new diplomatic initiative toward Islam and the Middle East. It said the meeting with King Adbullah was “of great importance,” noting, “In a world where the boundaries have become day by day more open, dialogue is not a choice but a necessity.”
The article also acknowledged that some weeks ago Pope Benedict had received a letter from 138 Islamic religious leaders from 43 nations, appealing for more dialogue between Christians and Muslims. As the weeks went by with no response, some scholars here had complained that the pope seemed slow to address an important appeal. The Vatican allayed those fears Tuesday.
The meeting represents a triumph of sorts for the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and especially for Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Cardinal Tauran, who previously served the church in Lebanon and Syria, is familiar with the Middle East and has promoted greater contact with Islamic states.
But official statements issued Tuesday made no mention of establishing diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Saudi Arabia, and it was not clear that the topic was even discussed. In May, the United Arab Emirates became the latest Islamic country to establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican, according to the Vatican paper.
One reason why the Vatican is interested in forging diplomatic relations, or at least greater diplomatic influence, in the Middle East is the presence of significant Roman Catholic populations living in predominantly Muslim countries. Almost all are guest workers from elsewhere. There are 1.5 million Christians in Saudi Arabia, the Vatican noted, the majority of them Catholics from the Philippines.
The State Department has criticized Saudi Arabia for religious intolerance and persecution of non-Muslims. “Charges of harassment, abuse and even killings at the hands of the muttawa (religious police) continue to surface,” the department said in a report issued this year.
But little sign of tension was evident Tuesday. The pope gave the king a 16th-century engraving of the Vatican and a gold medal with his seal. The king gave the pope a sword, telling him it was “made of gold and precious stones.”
In 1999, long before becoming king, Abdullah met Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, who also met other prominent Muslim leaders, including Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric who was president of Iran, also in 1999.