Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, has reportedly announced plans to restore and re-open a 900-year-old church as a “gift” to the Lebanese Patriarch.
The church is to be used as a centre for inter-religious dialogue, according to Catholic news agency Fides.
The Maronite Patriarch, Bechara Boutros al-Rai, has been in Saudi Arabia despite tensions between the two countries following the surprise resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, in Riyadh on 4 November.
According to the Kuwaiti daily newspaper Alrai, the Patriarch’s visit reveals a “new Saudi Arabia”, where “dialogue between civilisations and religions, between Muslims and Christians”, can take place.
Visits of church leaders to Saudi Arabia have been rare. The country is known for its conservative interpretation of Islam, although the monarchy seems to be taking steps to change this.
There are currently no official churches in Saudi Arabia and the thousands of Maronite families who work there have to live “either as a neutral person or as a Muslim”, one Lebanese Catholic, Danny Nasrallah, told the New York Times. “You have to pray in your heart when you want to pray,” he said.
Nasrallah said the Patriarch’s meeting with King Salman and the Crown Prince was “a good omen of where the Kingdom is headed”.
However, others have warned that this “gift” should not divert the world’s attention from Saudi Arabia’s role in the brutal conflict in Yemen, in which civilians have borne the brunt of the violence.
“It has been shocking to see the terrible impact of this man-made conflict. In the absence of substantial progress … the already dire situation will continue to deteriorate. The human suffering, already extreme, will grow and grow,” according to Mark Lowcock, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.