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from issue no. 10 - 2007

The historic visit of the King of Saudi Arabia to the Vatican

Symbolic gift, real trust

On 6 November for the first time a Saudi monarch, Custodian of the Two Sacred Mosques of Mecca and Medina, met a Pope. And symbolically presented him with a gold sword. Thus King Abdullah and Pope Benedict have set out on a path with unknown perspectives. An interview with the Saudi ambassador to Italy, Mohammed Ibrahim Al-Jarallah

by Giovanni Cubeddu

Benedict XVI with the King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz 

Benedict XVI with the King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud

When a good novelty occurs it is larger than the reasons out of which it arose and it has to do with hope. The hope that transpires in the words of the Saudi ambassador to Italy, Al-Jarallah, pronounced on occasion of the visit of King Abdullah to the great European capitals, to Italy and the Vatican. «His Majesty is doing everything in his power in order to strengthen the relations of the country with our partners in the world. From all points of view».
The Saudi Kingdom, not least for domestic reasons, is asking that its weight as leading Arab country be recognized and maintained in the international community. The Middle East remains at the top of the agenda of problems: to accept or not Iran as regional power, to manage the Iraqi disaster now also involved in the Turkish-Kurd confrontation, to stabilize Lebanon and the eternal conflict-peace process between Israelis and Palestinians back on the rails. While Washington is in fact involved for some time in the election campaign, and in a few months parliamentary and presidential elections will be held in Moscow.
That is the context for the recent visits of the Saudi monarch Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to Spain, France and Poland, and of his recent visit to Great Britain, Germany, Turkey, Italy and Egypt. But in Rome, for the first time, a Saudi King, Custodian of the Two Mosques most sacred to Islam, has crossed the threshold of the Apostolic Vatican Palace to meet the Roman Pontiff, Benedict XVI.

Justice for the Middle East
Ambassador Mohammed Ibrahim Al-Jarallah is a cultured and affable civil engineer who studied in the United States, and who has climbed many steps on the business and then political ladder in Riyadh. He has represented the Saudi Kingdom in Italy since January 2006. He organized and accompanied His Majesty Abdullah on his visit to Italy and the Vatican. We want to ask him about the Vatican press release of 6 November 2007, the day of the meeting between Pope Benedict and King Abdullah. According to the text of the communiqué, the talks touched on topics «that are heartfelt by the the two parties», that is «intercultural and religious dialogue, aimed at peaceful coexistence between men and peoples, and the value of the collaboration between Christians, Muslims and Jews for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, especially in support of the family». In the communiqué there is also delicate mention of the «positive and industrious presence of Christians». There is also mention of «an exchange of ideas on the Middle East and the need for a just solution to the conflicts that perturb the region, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian one». The ambassador says: «Certainly my country truly wants to see a just solution to the Palestinian problem, on which we have been working for a long time... and on which we shall continue to work. In the Lebanon, engaged in the election of a new president, we are trying to help all our friends, both in the majority and in the opposition... As for Iraq, the judgment is more phased. What has happened is indeed regrettable, our American friends have committed a glaring error. First of all by attacking a sovereign state without authorization from anyone, simply because they didn’t like the leadership of that country! And then by disbanding the army, dismantling the security forces. Episodes that leave no possibility to speak of their presence in Iraq in positive terms. Hence something must be done to put back together the pieces of the puzzle represented by the factions in Iraq and to return to a formal solution. The army and all the emergency forces must be reconstituted, so that peace can be maintained. The Iraqi people must necessarily be offered the chance to reunify and function as the important Arab country it has always been in history».

The gold sword adorned with precious stones, the Saudi monarch’s 
gift to the Supreme Pontiff

The gold sword adorned with precious stones, the Saudi monarch’s gift to the Supreme Pontiff

Bombs no, diplomacy yes
As for Iran, Al-Jarallah adds: «We have always said that we don’t like to see any country that has nuclear capacity for military purposes, including Iran. We’d like a Middle East free of nuclear warheads, but in the same way we believe that a solution can’t come out of extreme actions. Saudi Arabia does not reason in terms of aut aut, and even if we absolutely do not want Iran to have the atomic bomb, we are not asking that to avoid it Teheran be bombed: there is always a diplomatic solution. Peaceful and without negative consequences. This is what we should do, with the aid of all the countries interested, including the United States, Europe and Iran’s neighbors». The page needs to be turned. «Let me sum up our current foreign policy: we are a country that loves peace and does not want war with anybody, except in the case of legitimate defense. So there are many things in common between us and Italy.»

«Let us both pray to God in the way which most pleases us»
The Saudi press agencies gave detailed reports of the subjects of discussion between King Abdullah and Pope Benedict, setting them in the large context of the «inter-religious dialogue and that between civilizations». Both the King and the Pope agreed on the fact that «violence and terrorism have nothing to do with a religion or a native land».
But what today is the foreign policy of what is considered the country par excellence governed by the regulations of the sharia? Al-Jarallah’s answer is tranquil: «I do not believe one has to make a choice between being religious and not having to be so in order to manage a successful international policy and have good relations with others. We believe that the monotheistic religions have the same purposes and that all encourage the good and combat the evil in society. Even in terms of morality we share the same goals. So, to put it briefly, you and I can pray to God each in the way that he prefers, but this does not preclude the possibility of having economic, political, cultural and security relations. This is easily understood: we have nearly the same approach on these matters and that does not concern religion, which does not represent an obstacle but can instead help to readjust global issues and problems».
On this basis, then, we ask the ambassador what significance has this first visit of his King to the Pope assumed in his eyes. «Both His Holiness the Pope and His Majesty the King of Saudi Arabia have spiritual and moral responsibilities, towards Christians and Muslims respectively. Thus their meeting can only lead to good mutual understanding and continuous dialogue between the heads of the two main religions, that is Christianity and Islam. And that is exactly what has happened, if we assess the main outcome of the visit. And in any case we, Christians and Muslims, will do everything in our power to keep updating what was discussed at this meeting and to keep our doors open the one and the other, so as to speak and sometimes even argue about certain things. That remains our goal and our hope. To discuss and not be in agreement should not create any problem for us. We do not have to be identical in our religious beliefs to serve that common objective that is mankind. We are all working, we hope, for the peace and prosperity of all humanity». From now on the Pope and the King, «through good words and efforts that spiritually have a symbolic value, should encourage their own believers to commit themselves to being flexible, understanding and peace-loving. In my opinion that would contribute to making peace in the world more stable».

Palestinian refugees in the Shatila camp, Lebanon

Palestinian refugees in the Shatila camp, Lebanon

Full trust in Pope Benedict
The exchange of gifts between Pope Benedict and King Abdullah was also a real surprise: the monarch brought a gold sword adorned with precious stones in homage to the Pope. From an Arab it is a significant gift and certainly not random. We asked the ambassador to enlighten us: «In the Arab tradition to give someone a weapon, a symbolic object like a sword, means placing trust in that person. The person who receives the weapon could also use it, if he wanted, against the person who has given it. That is the origin of the symbolism. And the episode of the gift to the Pope is precise confirmation. There are people, however, who thought that we were trying to scare the other party! That is absolutely not the meaning. In reality, it says that we all hope to have an objective for which to work: peace and prosperity for our people and the rest of the world. It was a gesture of profound trust in the other party. It should also be said», the ambassador explains, «that for us Arabs a weapon can be part of traditional dress». And he concludes: «If it has already happened on other occasions that the King has bestowed such a gift, this is surely the first time that a sword has been given to a Pope in an act of trust».

Let the «trialogue» go ahead
It has already been said that Pope Benedict and the Saudi monarch touched on the issue of the «value of the collaboration between Christians, Muslims and Jews». The Saudi ambassador immediately brought up the burning issue: the Palestinian question. «I hope that His Holiness may be able to do a little more towards achieving just peace for the Palestinians, who are today victims because of something they have not committed. Europe is probably suffering for a sin in its own past, during the Second World War. But I must say, without hesitation, that the poor Palestinians have nothing to do with that situation! And they should not turn out to be punished for it. We have got to the point where sometimes one can’t help remembering that, if everything were to continue, another Holocaust might take place. This time, however, the victims would not be the Jews». Getting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – backed by the United States – restarted is now the task of the Conference in Annapolis, in Maryland, the outcome of which will all have to be assessed. Al-Jarallah comments on this with some sharpness: «It depends on what our American friends will truly do to achieve peace or not, because I have the impression that the Israelis don’t want it seriously. On the premise that Hamas does not recognize the existence of Israel, the Israelis create settlements, confiscate Palestinian land, imprison political leaders and members of the Palestinian Parliament. I have heard President Napolitano say that if he had been born in one of the Palestinian refugee camps he would probably have rebelled against the occupier. I believe President Andreotti has also said something similar. Which then is no more than what the former Israeli Premier Ehud Barak has also publicly asserted. Had I been Palestinian, I would also have engaged in armed resistance. One can’t help but see what Israel is doing in the area, having occupied Jerusalem, including east Jerusalem that is one hundred percent Palestinian. I don’t believe that the Israelis can imagine having both peace and all the land, that’s for sure».

«I hope that His Holiness may be able to do a little more towards achieving just peace for the Palestinians, who are today victims because of something they have not committed»
The mosque and the rabbi
Elsewhere and at other levels, however, the dialogue with the Jews and the Christians continues. And this, too, has its value. Enough to look at the Rome Mosque of Monte Antenne, the largest of Europe, to grasp that. The Saudi ambassador is also president of the Muslim Cultural Center attached to the mosque. «Even if the Muslim Cultural Center in Rome has nothing expressly to do with bilateral relations between the Holy See and Saudi Arabia», explains Al-Jarallah, «it is properly doing its part in promoting peace, with fairness and flexibility, among the Muslim faithful who attend the mosque. It is also cooling down the burning issues every time they arise. In short, it’s doing its job well». In March last year, here again for the first time, Riccardo Di Segni, Chief Rabbi of the Rome community, was allowed entry to the mosque, received by the General Secretary of the Muslim Cultural Center, Abdullah Redouane. Ambassador Al-Jarallah remembers it well.

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