Christian patriarch’s first visit to Saudi Arabia hailed as ‘historic’ by Lebanese
Beirut- Though overshadowed by the crisis sparked by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation, Lebanon’s Christian Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Rai’s historic visit to Saudi Arabia was a unique show of openness and religious tolerance in a region torn by sectarian conflict.
The official visit by such a senior non-Muslim cleric to the conservative kingdom reaffirmed the status of Christians as an indivisible entity of the Arab world, said Mohammad Sammak, secretary-general of the National Committee for Christian- Muslim Dialogue in Lebanon.
“The Arab dimension of the visit lies in the fact that it came in response to an invitation by the Saudi king, custodian of Islam’s two holiest shrines. In its gist and spirituality, it implies that Christians of the Orient belong to the region as much as Muslims with whom they constitute a single entity and share a common future and fate,” Sammak said.
The first visit by a Maronite patriarch, the religious representative of approximately 900,000 Maronites in Lebanon and communities in Syria and Cyprus, to Saudi Arabia was planned before political tensions between Beirut and Riyadh peaked with Hariri’s resignation on November 4.
It was a significant act of religious openness for Saudi Arabia, which bans public practice of religions other than Islam but says it wants to open up more to the world.
Fares Soueid, a Christian former parliamentarian who accompanied Rai to Riyadh, said the “historic” visit “lays the foundation of a new phase” of interfaith dialogue and rapprochement at the highest levels.
“The visit is historic because it was made by the Maronite patriarch who heads a church with a long-standing history in religious coexistence,” Soueid said.
“It also came at a very critical time at the regional and international levels. Through that visit, the custodian of the two holy shrines wanted to tell the world that Islam is the religion of tolerance, coexistence and forgiveness and that those who have sought to tarnish its image do not belong to Islam,” he added.
Sammak said the timing of the visit was indicative of a new period of inter-religious conciliation.
“Christians of the Orient have faced acts of terrorism that amounted to acts of extermination in Iraq, Syria and even in Egypt,” he said. “The invitation of the patriarch to Saudi Arabia gives an opposite image of what has been happening and it constitutes a headline for a new phase of Christian-Muslim relationship in the Middle East.”
“The visit also took place in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s successful efforts in fighting terrorism and stamping out Muslim extremism through regional alliances and reforms carried out internally,” Sammak added.
Minority Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have been persecuted by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and the Islamic State (ISIS), resulting in the death of thousands and forcing many more to flee. In northern regions of Iraq held by ISIS, Christians were ordered to pay a tax, convert to Islam or die by the sword. Most fled to the autonomous Kurdish region to the east.
Patriarchs of Eastern churches, including the Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac sects, sought Western support and protection for Christians in meetings with former US President Barack Obama and at conferences in Washington under the title “In Defence of Christians.”
“That was a big mistake, a move that many Christian figures in the region have criticised because it suggested that Christians needed Richard the Lionheart’s or Western protection to preserve their presence and rights in the region,” Soueid said.
“By inviting Patriarch al-Rai, the custodian of Islam’s holiest shrines wanted to underline that Christians are not a foreign community present by accident in the Orient and that their presence in the region cannot be safeguarded through controversial relations with the West… but they are linked to Muslims through a common history, present and future, and they are responsible for each other before God and history.”
Rai’s visit was also meant to reaffirm Lebanon’s status as a multi-sectarian and diverse country at a time the region is being redrawn and polarised along sectarian lines.
“It constitutes an acknowledgement by a Muslim heavyweight like Saudi Arabia that Lebanon is capable to be an international centre for dialogue between civilisations and diverse religions,” Sammak said.
“It confirms Lebanon as the land of coexistence and dialogue between religions and cultures,” said Soueid.
“As Christians, we have received what amounts to a life insurance policy. We tell Muslims openly that we should find a common space that will ensure our mutual safety and security in this part of the world.”