(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia invited Lebanon’s Catholic patriarch to visit the country and meet King Salman, a rare gesture by the Muslim kingdom to one of the most prominent Christian figures in the Middle East.
Waleed Al Bukhari, the Saudi charge d’affaire in Lebanon, handed Maronite Patriarch Beshara Al Rai the invite and said the “historic” visit would take place in the coming weeks, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported.
The invitation comes amid a drive to modernize Saudi Arabia’s traditionally ultra-conservative society that’s being led by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who vowed last month to eradicate extremism and return the kingdom to what he said was “moderate” Islam. The prince is also the architect of a plan aimed at weaning the country off its reliance on oil.
So far, there have been no indications Saudi rulers are considering allowing greater religious freedom in a country where the constitution is based on the Koran and the Sunna, the guidance of the prophet.
Saudi Arabia still bans non-Muslims from openly practicing their faiths, forcing congregations to hold their ceremonies in private homes or in embassies where they won’t be harassed by religious police. The kingdom has been criticized over its export of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam that has inspired extremist groups including al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Abdul Latif al-Sheikh, the former head of the religious police, said in an interview last month that it wasn’t necessary to allow followers of other faiths to practice their religion, describing Saudi Arabia as “all” Muslim. “We don’t have permanent residents here that are not Muslim,” he said. “I don’t think it’s necessary for us to make a place of worship for a guest who comes here for 6 or 7 months. ”
While Lebanese Christian politicians often meet Saudi rulers in Riyadh, Al Rai would be the first church leader to visit the kingdom, where crosses and religious signs are banned.
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