Riyadh (Agenzia Fides) - Maronite Patriarch Boutros Bechara Rai will pay an official visit to Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks, at the invitation of the authorities of the Country. This was confirmed by both official sources of the Country and those of the Maronite Patriarchate. "The visit", says to Agenzia Fides Bishop Camillo Ballin MCCJ, Apostolic Vicar for Northern Arabia, "may be the beginning of a new attitude of Saudi Arabia towards other religions".
The official invitation to visit Saudi Arabia was handed over to Patriarch Rai by Walid Bukhari, Chargé d'affaires of the Saudi Embassy in Lebanon, who on Wednesday November 1 met with the Primate of the Maronite Church at the patriarchal seat in Bkerké. During his visit to Saudi Arabia - said Bukhari himself - Patriarch Rai will also meet King Salman and the Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Salman.
The invitation to Patriarch Rai is part of the new strategy of attention that Saudi rulers are implementing towards Lebanon, also to counterbalance the strengthening of relations between Iran and the Country of Cedars, promoted above all by the Hezbollah Shiite Party: At the end of October, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri had met Prince Mohamed bin Salman and Thamer al Sabhan, Saudi sub-secretary for relations with the Gulf Countries, in Riyadh. Maronite politicians Samir Geagea (Leader of the Lebanese Forces) and Sami Gemayel (leader of Kataeb) had been received by the Saudi Prince in late September.
The announced visit of Patriarch Rai in Saudi Arabia appears to be relevant also from an ecclesial point of view. The Primate of the Maronite Church is invited as a prominent exponent among the assembly of Patriarchs and of the Heads of the Eastern Churches. In the past only Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch Elias IV officially visited Saudi Arabia in 1975. Maronite Patriarch Rai is also a member of the Cardinal's College, and could become the first Cardinal to officially visit Saudi Arabia and meet the authorities of the Country. In recent years, the Apostolic Nuncio in Kuwait once visited Saudi Arabia at the invitation of an Organization for Co-operation. "In Saudi Arabia", Bishop Ballin confirms to Fides "there are one and a half million Catholics, especially Filipinos and Indians".
Saudi Arabia does not allow the construction of non-Muslim churches and places of worship on its territory. Ryiad has no diplomatic relations with the Holy See but on November 6, 2007, King Abdallah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, received in Vatican by Benedict XVI, was the first Saudi sovereign to meet a Pope. (GV) (Agenzia Fides, 3/11/2017)