By William James
LONDON (Reuters) – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met the head of the Anglican church in London on Thursday and promised to promote interfaith dialogue as part of his domestic reforms, the British faith leader’s office said.
Prince Mohammed is making an official visit to London to promote Saudi Arabia as a tolerant, modernising economy and build a wider trade and investment relationship with Britain, a long-term defence ally.
On the second full day of his first foreign tour since becoming heir apparent to the Saudi throne last year, Prince Mohammed also had meetings with finance minister Philip Hammond, bankers and lawmakers, and was due to dine with Prime Minister Theresa May at her country residence later.
State oil giant Saudi Aramco, whose lucrative stock market listing Britain is vying with the United States to attract, signed a preliminary deal to pursue international gas opportunities with Royal Dutch Shell <RDSa.L>.
Prince Mohammed began the day with a symbolic visit to Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion of millions of Christians globally, at Lambeth Palace in central London.
“The Crown Prince made a strong commitment to promote the flourishing of those of different faith traditions, and to interfaith dialogue within the Kingdom and beyond,” a statement from Lambeth Palace said.
“The Archbishop shared his concern about limits placed on Christian worship in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and highlighted the importance for leaders of all faiths to support freedom of religion or belief, drawing on the experience of the UK.”
Saudi Arabia does not tolerate non-Muslims practising their faith publicly, forcing Christians to risk arrest by praying in private homes.
Prince Mohammed and Welby viewed early texts from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, including fragments of a Koran manuscript found in a Birmingham University library in 2015 that is thought to be among the world’s oldest.
Earlier this week, Prince Mohammed met Coptic Pope Tawadros II at Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral, part of his drive to rid the Gulf Arab kingdom of its reputation as a global exporter of an ultra-conservative brand of Islam.
Welby also “voiced his distress” at the humanitarian situation in Yemen, the statement said. A Saudi-led coalition is fighting a war in Yemen in which 10,000 people have died and 8.3 million people have been left dependent on food aid.
May, whose government has drawn widespread criticism for approving 4.6 billion pounds ($6.35 billion) worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, was likely to repeat her own concerns over the humanitarian situation in Yemen during a private dinner.
That criticism over the Yemen war and noisy demonstrations have contrasted with the warm welcome from the British government given the crown prince.
On Wednesday, Prince Mohammed met Queen Elizabeth for lunch and later met May to agree to target a 65 billion pound ($90 billion) increase in trade and investment ties.
A government spokeswoman said Prince Mohammed met with Hammond on Thursday, and two sources said there was also a meeting with Standard Chartered <STAN.L> group chief executive Bill Winters and HSBC <HSBA.L> CEO John Flint. No further details of either meeting were available.
(Reporting by William James, additional reporting by Dasha Afanasieva and Lawrence White, editing by Mark Heinrich)