Saudi crown prince meets with rabbis in New York

Mohammed bin Salman talks to Catholic, Jewish leaders in interfaith dialogue meant to demonstrate ‘common bond among all people’

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York on March 27, 2018. (AFP Photo/Bryan R. Smith)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York on March 27, 2018. (AFP Photo/Bryan R. Smith)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met Wednesday with a group of Jewish and Catholic leaders in New York in a rare show of interfaith dialogue.

Prince Mohammed met with Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union; The Most Reverend Bernardito Cleopas Auza, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations; and Bishop James Massa of the Brooklyn Diocese.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington said the meeting “emphasized the common bond among all people, particularly people of faith, which stresses the importance of tolerance, coexistence, and working together for a better future for all of humanity.”

The statement from the embassy added that “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always, and will continue to champion expanding dialogue; building a better understanding among the faiths, and focusing on the shared humanity of all peoples.”

No specific details of what the faith leaders and crown prince spoke about were released.

Despite the recent rhetoric of tolerance and reforms within Saudi Arabia, the kingdom still bans Jewish and Christian religions symbols.

On the country’s official custom’s page, it explicitly bans importation of a “six-pointed star,” “Christmas trees,” and “The cross or any commodity with pictures, inscriptions, drawings, recitations, or phrases including books, prospectuses, and other publications, films, and tapes which are contrary to the Islamic faith and morals or the publications regulation.”

In a major Saudi shakeup last year, Prince Mohammed pushed aside his older and more experienced cousin to become first in line to his father’s throne, setting himself up to control Saudi policy for decades to come.

Last week the 32-year-old crown prince met with US President Donald Trump in the White House, and was set to be in the US for over three weeks.

The visit comes as the US and much of the West are still trying to figure out Prince Mohammed, better known by his initials MBS, whose sweeping program of social changes at home and increased Saudi assertiveness abroad has upended decades of traditional rule in Saudi Arabia.

“This is not the real Saudi Arabia,” Prince Mohammed said recently about the repressive version of Islam many outsiders associate with the kingdom. He said he was restoring the more tolerant, egalitarian society that existed before Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservatives were empowered in 1979. He told CBS News: “We were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal.”

It’s a message that has earned Prince Mohammed admirers in the US, as he has allowed women to drive and opened movie theaters shuttered since the 1980s. The crown prince is turning “Saudi Arabia into a normal country in which normal people lead normal lives,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters ahead of the visit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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