By Matters India Reporter
Beirut: In a historic move, Saudi Arabia has invited Lebanon’s Catholic patriarch Beshara Al Rai to visit the country and meet King Salman in November.
The invitation comes amid Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s drive to modernize Saudi Arabia’s traditionally ultra-conservative society. He had vowed in October to eradicate extremism and return the kingdom to what he said was “moderate” Islam.
The invite was handed over to the bishop on November 1 by Waleed Al Bukhari, the Saudi charge d’affaire in Lebanon, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported.
“It will be one of the most important official visits to the Kingdom. It will be historical,” Bukhari said.
Lebanese daily An-Nahar wrote: “The timing and content of the invitation were surprising, as it will be the first visit by a Maronite patriarch to Saudi Arabia, a country that has no Christian churches and parishes.”
Middle East observers view the move as a rare gesture from the Muslim kingdom, home to Islam’s holiest sites of Mecca and Medina. Christians are not allowed to practise their faith openly in the country while crosses and other religious signs are banned here.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Al Rai is one of the most prominent Christian figures in the Middle East. Maronite Christians form the second biggest community after Muslims in Lebanon, which also explains the national pact of 1943 which prescribes that the President has to be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim.
The crown prince, who is the architect of a rapid reform process, had said: “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.”
The country is now going through a purge – from the arrest of prominent royals and businessmen to the royal decree allowing women to drive or attend sports events at stadiums.
The cultural and political revolution the Prince is spearheading has come on the sidelines of a vision for economic change. A new economic zone called NEOM is to be established on an uninterrupted 470 km of the Red Sea coast in northwestern Saudi Arabia, earmarked as a liberal hub like neighbouring Dubai.
The US$500 billion plan is a bid to free the nation of its dependence on oil. It also hopes to bring beach goers to the proposed global tourist destination unhindered by stifling religious laws.