Beirut (AsiaNews) - Maronite patriarch, Card. Bechara Raï has announced that he will visit Saudi Arabia within the next two weeks, responding to the official invitation from Saudi king Salman and the hereditary prince, and number two in the country, Mohammad bin Salman.

This is the first historic visit by a Lebanese church leader to the ultraconservative Wahhabi kingdom, which has recently launched a series of economic and social reforms, including the opening up of sports arenas and driving to women, as well as the first attempts at emancipation from the fundamentalist view of Islam.

In an interview with Lebanese State TV, Card. Raï confirmed the invitation from the highest Saudi authorities, pointing out that "no special conditions were set for the visit" which "will last one day". "My role - added the Cardinal - is not political and everyone knows who the Maronite patriarch is."

The Lebanese Christian leader remembers that in the past, in 2013, he had received an invitation to visit Riyadh from the former monarch, King Abdallah. However, this trip was never possible, he adds, "for a variety of [non-defined] issues."

In the last period, the Saudi kingdom has initiated a series of reforms, forcefully taken by the hereditary prince, in the context of the "Vision 2030" program that invests in the social, economic, cultural and religious sphere. Historians and analysts recall that Card. Raï’s will be "the first visit of a Christian religious leader since... the time of the Prophet's ". In the past the Cardinal had already made an official trip to Qatar.

An official source of the patriarchate reported that "the invitation was issued by word of mouth" in recent days to the Cardinal by the Saudi business agent in Lebanon Walid Boukhari. A historical visit, the sources emphasized, which once again raises the role of the Land of the Cedara as a "message of pluralism for the East and the West," as Pope John Paul II repeatedly referred to it.

The Maronite Patriarch and Lebanon propose their role as a “bridge" to an Arab world that opens to modernity in a regional context marked by wars - Iraq, Syria - and tensions (Iran and Saudi Arabia, Countries the Gulf and Qatar).

During the flying visit to Riyadh, Card. Raï should also raise the question of Jerusalem and peace in the Holy Land, a decade-old and unresolved problem that gives rise to all the other crises that characterize the region. (DS)

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