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Thursday, 08 November 2007 00:12

Pope Meets A Saudi King For First Time

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Nov 6 11:25 AM US/Eastern
By VICTOR L. SIMPSON
Associated Press Writer

Pope Benedict & Saudi king

VATICAN CITY (AP) - Benedict XVI raised concerns about restrictions on Christian worship in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in the first meeting ever between a pope and a reigning Saudi king.

Benedict and other Vatican officials have often protested that Christians are unable to worship openly in Saudi Arabia and are barred from opening churches in the desert kingdom where Islam's holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, are located.

King Abdullah, the protector of the holy sites, requested the audience during his European tour, the Vatican said. Benedict warmly greeted the king, grasping both his hands before heading into 30 minutes of private talks in his library.

At the end of the meeting, Abdullah presented Benedict with a traditional Middle Eastern gift" ”a golden sword studded with jewels" ”as well as a gold and silver statue of a palm tree and man riding a camel. The pope admired the statue but merely touched the sword.

Islam is the official religion of Saudi Arabia and the kingdom requires all Saudi citizens to be Muslims. Only Muslims can visit the cities of Mecca and Medina.

Under the authoritarian rule of the royal family, the kingdom enforces strict Sharia, or Islamic law. It follows a severe interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism which rejects the possibility of diplomatic relations with a Christian entity. This interpretation would prohibit a Vatican embassy in Saudi Arabia on the grounds it would be equivalent to raising the cross inside the site of Islam's holiest places.

It is forbidden to practice Christianity publicly inside Saudi Arabia, and it is illegal to bring symbols from religions other than Islam into the country. Bibles and crosses, for instance, are confiscated at the border.

Some Christian worship services are held secretly, but the government has been known to crack down on them, or deport workers from the Philippines if they are known to hold even private services.

The United States has also criticized Saudi Arabia's restrictions on other religions.

The Vatican has said it wants to pursue a dialogue with moderate Muslims after the pope angered the Muslim world in 2006 with a speech linking Islam to violence.

He later said he was misunderstood and regretted offending Muslims. He has since met a number of Islamic leaders and a year ago visited predominantly Muslim Turkey.

The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said the Vatican hoped the meeting with the Saudi king would produce a frank dialogue on Christian worship in the country, noting that there are more than 1 million Christian guest workers in Saudi Arabia.

The Vatican said the "positive presence and work of Christians was raised" during the talks. The talks were "warm" and allowed a wide discussion on the need for interreligious and intercultural dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews "for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, especially in support of the family," a statement said.

Benedict has said he wants to reach out to all countries that still do not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican, which include Saudi Arabia and China.

Abdullah had visited the Vatican twice before, as crown prince and deputy prime minister.


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