RIYADH (REUTERS, AFP) -Lebanon’s Christian Maronite Patriarch met Saudi Arabian King Salman on Tuesday (Nov 14) in an historic visit to the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom which bans the practice of other religions but says it wants to open up more to the world.
He will also meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who in addition to pushing radical economic reforms has pledged to relax his country’s strict social norms and revive “a middle-of-the-road, moderate Islam open to the world and all religions, traditions and people”.
An official visit to the kingdom by such a senior non-Muslim cleric is a rare act of religious openness for Saudi Arabia, which hosts the holiest sites in Islam but does not tolerate non-Muslims practising their faith publicly, forcing Christians to risk arrest by praying in private homes.
Patriarch Beshara al-Rai heads the Maronite church, which has a presence in Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus and follows an Eastern rite of the Roman Catholic church.
Flanked by fellow Catholic clerics wearing vestments and big gold crosses, Rai discussed with King Salman religious tolerance and combating extremism, the Saudi state news agency said. He also later met Saad al-Hariri, a Saudi ally who resigned as prime minister on Nov 4 in a move Lebanese political leaders ascribed to pressure from Riyadh.
Hariri said his resignation had been prompted by an assassination plot. He accused Iran and Hezbollah of sowing strife in the region.
Prince Mohammed, the 32-year-old son of the king, has taken a harder line on Iran since taking on wide-ranging authorities over the past two years including defence minister. He has also pushed for more social freedoms in a country where authority has rested on an enduring accommodation between the royal family and clerics who control the hardline Wahhabi strain of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia.
"Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi's... visit stresses the kingdom's approach for peaceful coexistence, closeness and openness for all sections of Arabic people," Saudi Gulf affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan said on Twitter.
Upon his arrival, the patriarch met with members of the Lebanese community. "We will maintain a strong friendship between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon," he said.
"This is our history even if we have had stormy relations sometimes. (There) is a history of friendship with this dear kingdom."
Hariri's resignation, which has thrown Lebanon into crisis, came against the backdrop of mounting tensions between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which back opposing sides in power struggles in hotspots such as Syria and Yemen.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said France was "worried by the situation in Lebanon" and wanted to see the government there "stabilise as quickly as possible".
He is set to visit the Saudi capital on Thursday.
France joined Germany and the European Union on Monday in calling for an end to external interference in Lebanon - buffeted for decades by conflicts between bigger players in the region such as Iran and Syria.