ROME — Pope Benedict XVI met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday at a time of strained relations between Islam and Christianity over global terrorism, the Iraq war and the lack of religious freedoms for nearly 1 million Roman Catholic migrant workers living in the Persian Gulf state.
It was the first meeting between a sitting Saudi monarch, who also oversees Islam’s holiest shrine at Mecca, and the head of the Catholic Church. The talks in the pope’s Vatican library came a year after Benedict suggested that Islam was prone to violence, igniting a furor across the Muslim world and setting back interreligious efforts by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
It was not clear if the 30-minute conversation between the two leaders, both octogenarians draped in pressed robes, rose beyond the symbolic. The Vatican has urged the Saudis to loosen religious restrictions in the kingdom, which forbids non-Muslim religious services and icons such as crucifixes. Many migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, most of whom are Filipinos working as maids and laborers, attend mass in private homes in near secrecy.
The Vatican media office said the meeting was cordial and “provided an opportunity to consider questions close to the heart” of both sides. The statement said that Vatican officials wished for the prosperity of all peoples living in Saudi Arabia while noting “the positive and industrious presence of Christians.” Saudi Arabia and the Holy See do not have formal diplomatic relations; the country’s practice of strict Wahhabi Islam opposes close ties to Christian organizations on Saudi soil.
The meeting and handshake between the king and the pope offered encouragement to resolving the religious and political turmoil across the Middle East. The Vatican statement said the two leaders stressed the “importance of collaboration between Christians, Muslims and Jews for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values.”
The trip to a city-state of holy crypts and exquisitely painted saints was politically risky for Abdullah, who since taking power in 2005 has lifted his country’s standing in the Arab world while contending with Al Qaeda and other extremist networks. Many Muslim clerics and intellectuals view Benedict as a dogmatic conservative who disparages religions other than Catholicism and lacks the diplomatic skills and moral stature of John Paul II.
“This is a very courageous step by King Abdullah given all the pressures he faces in Saudi society from extremists who regard Christians as enemies,” said Mustafa Alani, a political analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. “These talks are more important than a meeting with any other Arab leader. The king comes from the heart of Islam.”
Alani added, however, that although the talks were a “major step this will not mean the establishment of diplomatic relations tomorrow or anytime soon.”
Relations between Christianity and Islam have become sensitive since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Christian clergy have criticized Muslim religious leaders for not speaking more forcefully against Islamic radicals, especially in Saudi Arabia. In Europe, the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations are facing falling church attendance at the same time mosques and Islamic schools are being built to meet a growing population of Muslim immigrants.
A native of Germany, Benedict has stated Europe must not deny its “inalienable” Christian roots, a comment that drew criticism from Muslims. The remark followed Benedict’s citing of a quote from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor that linked Islam with violence and described the religion as “evil and inhuman.”
The pope said the comment, made in a university lecture, was taken out of context, and he since has stressed the need for interfaith understanding. In 2006, he visited predominantly Muslim Turkey, where he called for religious tolerance. And in recent weeks, Islamic leaders from 43 nations sent the pope a letter urging the Vatican to promote religious dialogue.
“In every civilization there is a positive side that must be followed when there’s a possibility of conflict with other civilizations,” Abdullah, who is on a European tour, was quoted in the Saudi media the day he met Benedict. “The moment has come to restart proactive dialogue which destroys negative ideas and gives humanity hope for a bright future.”
De Cristofaro reported from Rome and Fleishman from Cairo.