April 18, 2018 / 1:12 PM / 3 months ago

Catholic cardinal meets Saudi King in historic visit to Riyadh

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s King Salman met French cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran in Riyadh on Wednesday during the first visit to the kingdom by such a senior Catholic authority, Saudi state news agency SPA reported.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud talks during the opening of 29th Arab Summit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia April 15, 2018. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

It followed a flurry of meetings between senior Saudi figures and representatives of other Christian traditions in recent months, raising hopes of more openness in the kingdom which hosts Islam’s holiest sites but bans the practice of other faiths.

The meeting between the king and Tauran, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, is the first between the current Saudi ruler and a Catholic official.

Lebanon’s Christian Maronite Patriarch visited Saudi Arabia in November. 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.

During a meeting with the head of the Anglican church in London last month, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman promised to promote interfaith dialogue as part of his domestic reforms.

The young crown prince has rocketed to the pinnacle of power in Saudi Arabia, pushing a reform agenda called Vision 2030 aimed at weaning the country off oil and introducing social changes.

The country has seen a push for a more moderate Islam recently: the crown prince has loosened social restrictions, scaling back the role of religious police and permitting public concerts. The government also announced plans to allow women to drive this year.

King Abdullah, Salman’s predecessor and brother, met Pope Benedict in the Vatican in 2007.

Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome; Editing by Andrew Heavens

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