Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is steadily making his way westward in a “charm offensive” intended to convince political leaders and investors across the world that his country is modernizing, liberalizing, and becoming a stable home for foreign capital after a bit of turbulence early in his reign.
His stop in Egypt included the first-ever visit by a Saudi royal to a Coptic Christian cathedral, specifically St. Mark’s in Cairo, where he met with Coptic Pope Tawadros II on Monday.
The sheer visual power of the meeting between MBS, as he is often called, and Tawadros set the Internet on fire:
This picture will burn down the #hardliners #MuslimBrotherhood #Politcalislam | #Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets #Pope Tawadros II during his visit to #Egypt today – SPA 🇸✝️ pic.twitter.com/hGrR2SWaAi
— حسن سجواني Hassan Sajwani (@HSajwanization) March 5, 2018
Not only is it uncommon to see the future (and, in many eyes, currently the effective) ruler of Saudi Arabia sitting beneath a huge icon of Jesus and looking quite happy to be there, but St. Mark’s was the scene of a horrible terrorist bombing at the end of 2016, part of the Islamic State’s campaign to purge Christians from Egypt.
“The Gulf Arab kingdom is trying to shed its reputation as a global exporter of an ultra-conservative brand of Islam which critics say has inspired Islamist militants worldwide. Promoting a more moderate form of Islam is one of the more ambitious promises made by Prince Mohammed under plans to transform Saudi and reduce its reliance on oil,” Reuters explains.
The Egyptian Christian community supported President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi when he deposed the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi but later grew restless as Sisi had difficulty protecting Christians from extremist attacks. Crown Prince Mohammed’s visit to St. Mark’s Cathedral is bound to shore up Sisi’s standing with the Christian community as he heads into a frankly dubious election this month—an electoral ritual he will certainly win, since every credible opponent decided to drop out of the race, but weak turnout would be embarrassing.
Reuters notices that the streets of Cairo are festooned with banners showing Sisi, MBS, and current Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz with messages to the Crown Prince such as “Welcome to your second country!” and “Saudi and Egypt are one land, one nation.”
Pope Tawadros also told MBS to think of Egypt as his “second home,” praising his reforms in Saudi Arabia as a development that will “help us defeat the violence and terrorism that has plagued our region.”
St. Mark’s Cathedral spokesman Father Boulos Halim said the meeting between MBS and Tawadros “demonstrates the values of tolerance and love that bind Saudi Arabia and Egypt,” and agreed it was a significant milestone in the Middle East’s confrontation with religious extremism.
“Not only is this a message of peace, but it supports tolerance in the Arab world and is a sign of improved relations between Saudi Arabia and the church,” said Halim. “This is a visit of love and peace.”
“We have been admirably following your progress on the media,” Pope Tawadros told Crown Prince Mohammed. “The new changes to Saudi Arabia helps in the growth of the whole region. We appreciate Saudi Arabia hosting millions from all countries including Egypt and providing job opportunities for them. We know our Egyptian Christian children who work in Saudi Arabia receive a lot of love and they always speak highly of the Saudi government.”
“Saudi Arabia has witnessed a great development in the recent period. This will help rout violence and extremism,” the Coptic pope predicted.
For his part, MBS reported spoke highly of Coptic Christians and praised their contributions to the stability of Egypt. He also visited the Al-Azhar mosque while in Cairo, a renowned center of Muslim scholarship seen as critical to promoting moderate Islam. Father Halim praised al-Azhar as vital to conveying a message of peace and called it “the heart of Islam in the Arab world.”
After his 20-minute meeting with MBS, Pope Tawadros denied rumors that they discussed the possibility of establishing a Coptic church in Saudi Arabia but said the Crown Prince extended an invitation for him to visit Saudi Arabia as his guest, along with all members of the church.
Not everyone is swooning over the meeting between MBS and Pope Tawadros II. The general tenor of grumbling online is that the Saudis are merely reinforcing a political alliance with Egypt against such common adversaries as the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, Qatar, and especially Iran, and if Crown Prince Mohammed is truly serious about religious tolerance, he will visit a Shiite mosque.