Thu, Nov 08, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Pope meets King Abdullah to air religious freedom

COLLABORATION Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi also met the Saudi king, who gave Pope Benedict a gold sword encrusted with jewels

AFP , VATICAN CITY

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, center, meets Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Tuesday.

PHOTO: EPA

Pope Benedict XVI raised the issue of Christians living in Saudi Arabia in a historic meeting on Tuesday with King Abdullah, the first monarch of the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom to visit the Vatican.

During their talks, which also touched on conflicts in the Middle East, the pope highlighted "the positive and hard-working presence of the Christians" in Saudi Arabia, a Vatican communique said.

The two men also stressed "the value of collaboration among Christians, Muslims and Jews" and renewed a commitment to "intercultural and inter-faith dialogue with the goal of peaceful and fruitful coexistence," the statement said.

The Holy See does not have diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam's holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina and applies a rigorous doctrine of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism.

The question of religious freedoms for the roughly one million Christians and other non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia remains an extremely sensitive one.

In September, the US State Department's annual report on religious freedoms noted some improvement in "specific areas" in Saudi Arabia but said overall government policies continued to place "severe restrictions on religious freedom."

The report mentioned discrimination against non-Muslims, or against Muslims with practices other than Wahhabism, citing allegations of harassment, abuse and "even killings."

The groundbreaking talks were not King Abdullah's first contact with the head of the Roman Catholic Church, since he met Pope Benedict's predecessor John Paul II in 1999 when he was crown prince to his half brother King Fahd.

King Abdullah, 84, and the 80-year-old pontiff also exchanged "ideas on the Middle East and the need to find a fair solution to the conflicts afflicting the region, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," the Vatican communique said.

The king gave Pope Benedict a gold sword encrusted with precious stones and accepted a 16th-century engraving of the Vatican in return.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi met the Saudi king later, saying afterward that he hoped a planned Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, later this year would "yield solid expectations for an end, once and for all, to this conflict."

He said the conference held out "strong expectations" among Palestinians for a future sovereign state "with geographical continuity in peace and security with the state of Israel, which in turn would be recognized by all the countries of the region."

Prodi also mentioned the upcoming election by the Lebanese parliament of a new president, saying that Italy and Saudi Arabia were in "constant close contact to facilitate dialogue and to exhort Lebanese political forces to reach a compromise in the primary interests of the people."

Lebanese officials said on Tuesday that the parliamentary speaker might again postpone a special session to elect a president to replace Emile Lahoud, whose mandate expires on Nov. 24.

Two other sessions to pick a president have already been delayed for lack of consensus between the Western-backed ruling majority and the Hezbollah-led opposition.

King Abdullah, who ascended the throne two years ago, had arrived in Rome late on Monday following a lavish three-day visit to London at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II.

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