In wake of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s effort to cultivate a modern image of Saudi Arabia, it emerged that the ultraconservative kingdom reportedly partnered with the Vatican to build Christian churches in the country that presently has none.
However, a swift denial was issued from the Vatican, which said no such deal was made and the news was “false.”
The deal was reported in Middle Eastern media after Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, seen as an ambassador of harmony between the Roman Catholic Church and Islam, visited Saudi Arabia this year and met the Saudi royal family.
The report first emerged in the online newspaper Egypt Independent and was later in Al Jazeera as well, although the news outlet said it was unable to independently verify the report.
Although overblown, the news of the Saudi regime enlisting the help of church leaders to make the country a more welcoming place for its non-Muslim inhabitants may not be entirely false.
The cardinal, in his meetings with the royal family, reportedly urged its members to not treat Christians as second-class citizens. He also visited the Riyadh-based Etidal, the Arabic acronym for Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, and sat down to discuss “ways to promote tolerance” with the Saudi government, according to a government official.
The cardinal is not the only Christian leader to visit the conservative kingdom recently.
In November 2017, the head of Lebanon’s Maronite Church, Beshara Rai, met King Salman and the crown prince.
Rai, who was invited by the influential crown prince, said he was in the country to promote coexistence in the region plagued by religious conflict.
During his visit to New York, bin Salman reportedly met a group of rabbis in a rare gesture of interfaith harmony and emphasized “the common bond” between people.
The kingdom is known for being religiously intolerant. Non-Muslims are not allowed to display their religion outside their homes and some scholars also believe leaving the Islamic faith should be punished by death.
Bin Salman is said to be pushing for greater tolerance in a country where all non-Muslim places of worship are banned. The meetings are part of a concentrated effort to project a more moderate image of the puritanical kingdom.
The news came at a time when bin Salman is making significant changes in the kingdom’s policy for a much more modernized approach.
The country also commenced its first fashion week showcasing international designers and proposed a program that calls for an end to the draconian gender segregation that has been followed in the kingdom for a very long time.
Banner/Thumbnail: Reuters, Max Rossi