Could the pope visit Saudi Arabia? The unlikely religious breakthrough no one noticed

Seeking to improve its image, Saudi kingdom serves kosher food at interfaith summit aimed at combating extremism

Published June 18, 2022 8:00AM (EDT)

Pope Francis, Sayyed Abu al-Qasim al-Dibaji and Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt at Rome's Colosseum for an International Meeting for Peace with leaders of various religions and confessions in Rome, Italy. (Stefano Spaziani/Archivio Spaziani/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
Pope Francis, Sayyed Abu al-Qasim al-Dibaji and Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt at Rome's Colosseum for an International Meeting for Peace with leaders of various religions and confessions in Rome, Italy. (Stefano Spaziani/Archivio Spaziani/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Although the Western media barely noticed this against the backdrop of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, political turmoil and worsening inflation in both the U.S. and Europe, and the global climate crisis, Saudi Arabia recently hosted the first-ever conference of its kind, bringing together prominent Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, evangelical Protestants, Hindus and Buddhists from around the world.

Jewish News, which describes itself as "Britain's Biggest Jewish Newspaper," published a report on the conference under the headline, "Fueled by Kosher food, leading rabbi joins landmark Saudi Arabia interfaith summit." That report highlighted the remarks of David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland and currently the American Jewish Committee's international director of interreligious affairs, who called the event a "breakthrough."

The conference was sponsored by the Mecca-based Muslim World League (MWL), a 60-year-old NGO largely funded by the Saudi government that promotes a moderate form of Islam and "interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and peaceful coexistence with global religious authorities," in the words of a recent State Department report. This conference can certainly be understood as an effort by the Saudi monarchy to burnish its global image in the face of widespread criticism over its human rights record, and also to weaken or undermine the more extreme doctrines of Wahhabism long associated with the kingdom. 

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There is little doubt, however, that MWL Secretary General Mohammad Al-Issa has become one of the leading voices of moderation in the Muslim world, and has done extensive outreach to Jewish and Christian leaders. He has repeatedly denounced Holocaust denial, for instance, and in January 2020 led a delegation of Islamic scholars to visit the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. 

Orthodox rabbis at the conference were fed from a kosher kitchen provided by the Muslim World League. That would have been unimaginable in Saudi Arabia only a few years ago.


Jewish News described the MWL conference as "a massive step forward in a country whose identity is built around strict religious observance," noting that 10 members of the Jewish delegation were Orthodox rabbis, fed from a kosher kitchen set up for the event "compliments of the MWL." Such a gesture would have been impossible to imagine in Saudi Arabia until very recently.

"It is a breakthrough to be here for the first time," Rabbi Rosen told the Jewish News. "Saudi Arabia is the bedrock of Islam and has always sought to portray itself in the purity of that faith — so for them to advance pluralistic approach is amazing and shows how far they have come."

The Times of India, the largest-circulation English-language newspaper in the world, also covered the conference, noting that a Hindu religious leader from Goa, Brahmeshanand Acharya Swami, would deliver a keynote address. Another Indian newspaper, the Ahmedabad Mirror, called the Saudi conference the second historical opening of Hindu leaders to the outside world, 125 years after Swami Vivekananda represented India and Hinduism at an interfaith conference in Chicago.

A Sri Lankan newspaper, The Island, highlighted the "first-ever visit of Buddhist and Hindu priests from Sri Lanka to Saudi Arabia," in a delegation led by the Most Venerable Banagala Upatissa Thera, president of the Mahabodi Society of Sri Lanka. Clad in the traditional flowing saffron robe, Thera "focused his attention on the similarity of teaching of Lord Buddha and teaching and practices in the Islamic faith," according to the report. He told attendees, "Many people would be shocked to think of Islam and Buddhism being comparable in any way, and yet if you look closely at their teachings, and their efforts towards peace, they are more similar than one may suspect."

Vatican News, the official portal of the Holy See, reported on the presence of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, using language that could be interpreted as both praise and criticism for the Saudi regime. Among the issues covered were "the fundamental role of religion for society, the spiritual basis for fundamental human rights, and the rejection of a vision of an 'inevitable clash of civilizations' due to religious issues," the outlet reported. It also mentioned the need "to protect the integrity of the family and the upbringing of children," an ambiguous phrase perhaps designed not to offend traditionalists of any faith.

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Interestingly, given the war in Ukraine and tensions between the branches of Orthodox Christianity, leading representatives from both the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Moscow Orthodox Patriarchate were present. The conflict was apparently not mentioned, either at the conference itself or in statements issued afterward by Orthodox authorities. 

Archbishop Thomas Paul Schirrmacher, secretary-general of the World Evangelical Alliance, published about 20 photos from the Saudi conference on his Instagram account, including his meetings with leaders of many different denominations and images of Muslims in prayer. (Although the WEA represents some 600 million evangelical Protestants around the world, many conservative evangelical churches, especially in the U.S., are not affiliates.)

This moment of detente between the major branches of Christianity and the Islamic world may represent an overdue reckoning with the 7th century. That was when the Roman Catholic Church designated Islam as a heresy, a view that remained widespread among Christians for a millennium and has certainly not disappeared altogether. Muhammad was often described in Christian theology as a perverted, false prophet or a man possessed by demons, and Muslims were often called "Mohammedans," an insulting term because Muslims believe that Muhammad was a messenger from God, not himself divine.

In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas wrote that Muhammad "did not bring forth any signs produced in a supernatural way." A century later, in Dante's "Divine Comedy," Muhammad was portrayed being tortured as a heresiarch, with his body split open and his entrails hanging out.

It wasn't until the 20th century that the Vatican recognized Islam as a legitimate religion — but even in this century Pope Benedict quoted a Byzantine emperor calling Muhammad "evil and inhuman."


It was not until the 20th century that the Vatican issued statements recognizing Islam as a legitimate world religion, but controversies continued over Christian-Muslim dialogue, whether Islam was a religion or a political system and the fraught issue of intermarriage. As recently as 2006, Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor of the 14th century saying: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Perhaps that unfortunate quotation, which the pope later said he regretted, and which led to condemnation from Muslim governments and attacks on Christians in Muslim countries, was in some sense a blessing in disguise.

Prominent Muslim religious leaders, academics and government officials sent two letters to the pope, the first with 100 signatures and the second with 138. The second one, entitled "A Common Word Between Us and You" (a quotation from the Quran) helped open the way for an unprecedented exchange of opinions and visits.

In 2007, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited the Vatican and met Pope Benedict, although media in the West and the Muslim world reported that historic event quite differently. Western news reports highlighted Benedict's concern for the tiny Christian minority in Saudi Arabia, whereas the meeting was presented to Saudi audiences as a moment of immense pride for the land of Mecca, to which Muslims all over the world pray. 

Abdul-Rahman Al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi journalist who can be understood as close to the views of the monarchy, criticized Pope Benedict for "hearing about terrorist acts by Muslims, and listening to their tapes that exalt their actions as part of Islam," saying that "he should know better," and that such actions do not represent Islam.

Things have changed so much in the last 16 years that Pope Francis, who has already visited a few Muslim countries, has said virtually the same thing: "It's not right to identify Islam with violence. It's not right and it's not true. ... If I speak of Islamic violence, then I have to speak of Catholic violence." Al-Rashed not only praised Pope Francis for his 2019 visit to the United Arab Emirates, but strongly criticized those Muslims who opposed the visit. It would be a major political and theological undertaking for the pope to visit Saudi Arabia — but it is beginning to seem possible.

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By Mohammad Ali Salih

Mohammad Ali Salih has been a Washington correspondent for Arabic-language publications in the Middle East since 1980.

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