VATICAN CITY – The king of Saudi Arabia met Tuesday with Pope Benedict XVI — the first-ever meeting between a pontiff and a reigning Saudi monarch — amid Vatican concerns about restrictions on Christian worship in the Muslim kingdom.
The Vatican said the "positive presence and work of Christians was raised" during the talks between Benedict and King Abdullah, who is protector of Islam's holiest sites.
The talks were "warm" and allowed a wide discussion on the need for interreligious and intercultural dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews "for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, especially in support of the family," the Vatican said in a statement.
Both sides also emphasized the need for a "just solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Vatican said.
Benedict has said he wants to reach out to all countries that still don't have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, which include Saudi Arabia and China.
At the same time, Benedict and other Vatican officials have often protested that Christians are unable to worship openly in Saudi Arabia and are barred from opening churches in the desert kingdom.
The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said the Vatican hoped the meeting would produce a frank dialogue between the two sides over the issue, noting that there are more than 1 million Christian guest workers in Saudi Arabia.
Abdullah also met separately with the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
At the start of the audience, Benedict warmly greeted Abdullah, grasping both his hands before heading into 30 minutes of private talks in his library.
The Vatican said Abdullah had requested the audience, which came during his European tour. He had visited the Vatican twice before, as crown prince and deputy prime minister.
At the end of the meeting, Abdullah presented Benedict with a traditional Middle Eastern gift — a golden sword studded with jewels — as well as a gold and silver statue of a palm tree and man riding a camel.
The pope admired the statue but merely touched the sword.
Benedict sparked anger in the Muslim world in 2006 when he delivered a speech linking Islam to violence.
He said he was misunderstood and regretted offending Muslims. Since then, he has met a number of Islamic leaders and a year ago visited predominantly Muslim Turkey.
The Vatican has said it wants to pursue a dialogue with moderate Muslims.