A Rare Sight: Christian Priest Visiting Saudi Arabia Openly Wears a Cross

Updated on
  • Lebanese church leaders are in kingdom on groundbreaking trip
  • Hints at the rapid change in kingdom under Prince Mohammed

Symbols of Christianity are banned in Saudi Arabia and there are no churches, at least in the public sphere. So it was a remarkable sight: A Christian priest, openly wearing a cross, being greeted by one of the kingdom’s most influential ministers on Monday.

Bishop Boulos Matar is part of a delegation accompanying Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Patriarch Beshara Al Rai on an official visit to Saudi Arabia, the first such invitation extended to a senior Maronite figure. On Tuesday, they met King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, according to Lebanese media covering the trip.

Pictures released by Lebanon’s LBCI TV, which has a crew covering the trip, showed the bishop settled in an ornate chair, his robes parting to display a large golden cross. The patriarch was also wearing a gold cross before he left Beirut -- and there was a glimpse of it under his robes as he was escorted away from his plane on arrival in the kingdom by a leading Saudi minister, Thamer Al-Sabhan.

Unremarkable behavior for Christian clerics -- but virtually unprecedented in Saudi Arabia, founded on an austere form of Sunni Islam and ruled under it for decades. The constitution is based on the Koran and the Sunna, the guidance of the prophet. Most forms of religious expression by other sects and religions are outlawed. Visitors have had non-Islamic religious articles confiscated.

The photos hint at the rapid change under way in the kingdom under Prince Mohammed. On top of his promise to revolutionize the oil-dependent Saudi economy, and reboot of a traditionally cautious foreign policy, the 32-year-old also says he’ll change the religious basis of Saudi society -- stamping out extremism and ushering in a “moderate” version of Islam. So far, though, there’s been no indication that the reform program will include greater religious freedom.

— With assistance by Vivian Nereim, and Dana Khraiche

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