The pope, left, is concerned about the Christian minority in Sadui Arabia [Reuters]


King Abdullah has become the first Saudi monarch to meet a Catholic pontiff after he was received by Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican.

The two men were reported to have discussed on Tuesday the situation of Saudi Arabia's Christian minority, the need for greater inter-faith collaboration and prospects for peace in the Middle East.

They spoke for about half an hour in Benedict's private study with the help of interpreters in what both the Vatican and reporters described as a cordial atmosphere.

A Vatican statement said "the presence and hard work of Christians [in Saudi Arabia] was discussed".

Vatican sources said before the meeting that they expected Benedict to raise his concern over the situation of Catholics and other Christians in Saudi Arabia.

Greater rights

The Vatican wants greater rights for the one million Catholics who live in Saudi Arabia, most of them migrant workers who are not allowed to practise their religion in public.

They are only allowed to worship in private places, usually homes, and cannot wear signs of their faith in public.

The Vatican said other topics discussed included inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue and "collaboration among Christians, Muslims and Jews for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, especially those which support the family".

Benedict and Abdullah also discussed the Middle East, particularly the need to find "a just solution to the conflicts that afflict the region, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian [conflict]".

Many Muslims around the world protested last year after Benedict, speaking at a university in his native Germany, used a quote that associated Islam with violence.

He later said he was misunderstood and has several times expressed esteem for Muslims.

Minority request

At the end of the meeting, Abdullah gave Benedict a gold and silver sword studded with precious jewels, in keeping with a bedouin custom the Saudis follow when foreign leaders visit their country.

The king also presented Benedict with a small silver and gold statue depicting a palm tree and a man riding a camel.

In an interview with Reuters on the eve of the meeting, the bishop in charge of Catholics in Saudi Arabia called on the country to guarantee more freedom and security for minority Christians and allow more priests in to minister to the faithful.

"What I am hoping is that there can be more security and freedom for our people in a very low profile manner," Paul Hinder, a Swiss bishop who is based in Abu Dhabi, said.

"I am not expecting to be able to build a cathedral. But at least [we need] the freedom to worship in security."

Source: Agencies