In First Meeting, Pope, Saudi King Speak Of Cooperation

Vatican works to fix damage from Islam comment

ROME – Pope Benedict XVI and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia clasped hands at the Vatican yesterday in a cordial meeting, the first meeting ever between a pope and the Saudi monarch, who is entrusted to protect Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed and center of the Islamic world.

The pair met for half an hour, speaking through interpreters, in a conversation that a Vatican press release later said had covered such themes as the “value of collaboration between Christians, Muslims, and Jews for promoting peace” and “the necessity of finding a just solution” of 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 communique 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 that the meeting with Abdullah 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 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 yesterday.

Official statements issued yesterday made no mention of establishing diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Saudi Arabia, and it was not clear that that topic had even been discussed.