RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The Maronite Christian patriarch of Lebanon met with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in the Saudi capital on Tuesday during a rare visit by a Christian leader to the Islamic kingdom that ended up being as much about politics as religion.
The patriarch, Bechara Boutros al-Rai, arrived in Riyadh amid escalating tensions between the two nations over the surprise resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, and Saudi threats against Hezbollah and Iran.
While few details were released on what the patriarch discussed with the king, the visit pleased many Lebanese and seemed to calm the situation.
The recent episode started when Mr. Hariri fled to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and announced his resignation from Lebanon’s government on Nov. 4, shocking even his closest aides and raising suspicions that the Saudis had forced him to quit.
Blaming Iran for meddling in Arab countries, he said its “hands” in the region “will be cut off,” apparently intended as a threat against Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that also has ministers in Lebanon’s government. A few days later, Saudi Arabia told its citizens to leave Lebanon, raising fears of war.
The rumors about Mr. Hariri’s status persisted, and a television interview this week meant to show that he was a free man failed to quiet them. Patriarch Rai told reporters before traveling to the kingdom on Monday that the situation had left many Lebanese “not at ease” and that he would raise issue with the king.
On Tuesday, dressed in red and black clerical robes and with a large gold cross around his neck, he met with King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Mr. Hariri, according to Saudi state news media.
After the visit, Mr. Hariri posted a message on Twitter for the first time in more than a week, saying he would return to Lebanon in the coming days.
For Saudi Arabia, a monarchy long defined by an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam often hostile to other religions, the decision to receive the patriarch seemed intended to show a new openness.
Since his father became king in 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed has sought to moderate the kingdom’s religious rhetoric. He has stripped the power to arrest from the religious police, arrested dozens of hard-line clerics and pushed for social changes, including promising women the right to drive starting in June.
Earlier this month, he told an international investment conference in Riyadh that the kingdom needed a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.”
For Lebanon, the visit cast Patriarch Rai in the role of unofficial ambassador, seeking clarity about the status of the prime minister and seeking to calm tensions that could endanger Lebanon and the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese living and working in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries.
The remittances they send home are essential to Lebanon’s economy.
Thousands of Maronite families live in Saudi Arabia, which has no churches and bans the public observance of any religion other than Islam.
“There is no life here as a Christian, or as a Catholic; life here is either as a neutral person or as a Muslim,” said Danny Nasrallah, a Lebanese Catholic who has worked in the kingdom in the field of business development for eight years. “You have to pray in your heart when you want to pray.”
While he and others did not expect any immediate changes after the patriarch’s visit, they saw it as a good omen of where the kingdom is headed.
“What’s important is that the line between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia remains open,” said Johnny Tannoury, a mechanical engineer who is Maronite. “There is a unique relationship between the Lebanese people and Saudi Arabia and we don’t want that to change.”
The Maronite church is found in Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus and follows the Eastern Rite of the Roman Catholic Church.
Patriarch Rai is the second Christian patriarch to visit the kingdom; the last such visit was in 1975, Reuters reported.