In a formal statement released after the meeting, the Vatican said that the Pope's 30-minute talk with King Abdullah, held in the library of the apostolic palace, had been conducted in "a cordial atmosphere," allowing the two "consider questions close to the heart of both sides."
Prior to the meeting, Vatican officials had quietly confirmed that the Pope would press the Saudi monarch to ease restrictions on religious freedom. The Saudi monarchy, which takes pride in its role as custodian of Islam's holiest shrines, at Mecca and Medina, forbids any public manifestation of other religions. The 1.2 million Christians living in the country (most of them foreign workers) are not allowed to build churches, hold public services, or wear religious jewelry and insignia.
The official Vatican account of the Pope's meeting with King Abdullah referred only obliquely to the question of religious freedom, saying that the two had discussed "inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue aimed at peaceful and fruitful coexistence." The statement also mentioned the "positive and industrious presence of Christians" in Saudi Arabia.
King Abdullah stopped in Rome during a tour of European cities. At a dinner hosted by Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano on the eve of his visit with the Pope, the Saudi monarch had said that he was hoping to strengthen inter-religious dialogue. "If everyone followed the principles of their religions, and did what Allah ordered, the world would be freed of conflicts," he said.
The Saudi leader has taken a keen interest in the peace process in the Middle East, and the Pope's talk with Abdullah included a discussion of "the need to find a just solution to the conflicts affecting the region, especially that between Israelis and Palestinians," the Vatican reported.
Although no Saudi king had ever visited the Vatican before today's historic meeting, Abdullah himself had met with Pope John Paul II (bio - news) in 1999. At that time, although his formal rank was crown prince, Abdullah was the de facto head of the Saudi government, since his brother and predecessor, King Fahd, had been crippled by a stroke in 1995. Abdullah became king upon Fahd's death in 2005.
After his meeting with the Pope, King Abdullah spoke separately with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (bio - news), and with the Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.
Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world that does not have formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See.