Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Aziz is no stranger to the Vatican.
His meeting next Tuesday with Pope Benedict XVI marks the first time a pope has met with a reigning king of Saudi Arabia. But it will be Abdullah’s third papal audience.
As crown prince, he met with Pope John Paul II twice — at Castel Gandolfo in September 1997 and at the Vatican in May 1999.
Although the Vatican and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations, Pope Benedict met with another member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Saud Al Faisal, in September. The Vatican said the pope and the prince, who is the country’s foreign minister, discussed the political and religious situation in Saudi Arabia, among other topics.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s holy cities of Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed, and Medina, site of Mohammed’s tomb. The country forbids the public practice of any religion other than Islam, a position frequently criticized by human rights organizations and by the Vatican, which is especially concerned about the situation of Catholic foreign workers in Saudi Arabia.
Vatican-watchers are eager to see how the pope addresses those issues. But there is a good chance only the king, the pope and their top staff will know for sure.
Formal speeches are exchanged and published only on the rare occasions of a formal state visit. Otherwise, Vatican press statements about papal meetings with visiting heads of state usually begin by saying the meeting was “cordial” or “very cordial,” and then add an exceedingly general list of topics covered. Normally, reporters get details of the papal conversation only if the head of state talks about it later at a press conference.