VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis will receive the Saudi ambassador to Italy tomorrow and be presented with a personal message from King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

The private meeting with Ambassador Mohammed Al Ghamdi will take place in a room in the Paul VI audience hall after the Pope’s weekly general audience.

It’s not clear what the contents of the message will be, but it is likely to congratulate Pope Francis on his election and advocate working together on improving Catholic-Muslim relations.

The Pope has made improving relations with Islam a priority and, like Benedict XVI, he would like to pursue the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with the Islamic kingdom.

Addressing diplomats accredited to the Holy See March 22, the Holy Father said: “It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God. But the converse is also true: It is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people. Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam.”

He has also tried to reach out to Muslims in other ways: washing the feet of a Muslim prisoner in a youth detention center on Holy Thursday and at the Via Crucis at the Colosseum on Good Friday, when he highlighted Benedict XVI’s visit to Lebanon last year and the “strong bond of communion” between Christians and Muslims that exists there.

Before he became Pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had long cultivated warm relations with Muslim leaders in his native Argentina.

King Abdullah has similarly pursued better interfaith relations, appealing to Muslim clerics and extremist Wahhabi leaders to engage with Jewish and Christian leaders. He has also created his own Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna. Launched last November, the organization aims to help combat religious extremism by raising the profile of moderate voices. The king also made history in 2007 by becoming the first Saudi monarch to visit the Pope at the Vatican.

But religious freedom has a long way to go in the Arab kingdom. It is ranked No. 2 out of 50 on the "Open Doors World Watch List" of nations where persecution against Christians is most severe. There is no provision for religious freedom in the country's constitution. Public Christian worship is forbidden, and worshippers risk imprisonment, lashings, deportation and torture if caught by the religious police. All citizens must adhere to Islam, and conversion to another religion is punishable by death.

A few priests do manage to hold clandestine Masses for the immigrant Christian communities in Saudi Arabia, but at risk of their own lives. (In 2008, the Register interviewed one such priest.)

Evangelizing Muslims and distributing non-Islamic materials is illegal, and Muslims who convert to Christianity risk being subjected to honor killings. Foreign Christian workers have been exposed to abuse from employers, and, last year, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s top Islamic official, declared that all churches in the Gulf should be destroyed.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Christians are facing increasing hardship and suffering following the Arab Uprising, particularly in Syria, Iraq and Egypt.

Francis has been meeting the Eastern patriarchs individually over the past few weeks. He has already had private audiences with Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal; the patriarch of Alexandria of the Copts, Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak; and Chaldean Patriarch Louis I Sako.

On Thursday morning, he will receive Greek-Melkite Patriarch Gregorious III Laham; and, on Friday, he is scheduled to meet Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch.

The Vatican says the patriarchs were present to celebrate the beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate, but on that occasion the Pope didn’t have the opportunity to meet them calmly. He therefore “expressly invited them to come to Rome now, for specific audiences with each of them.”

Speaking to Vatican Radio after meeting the Pope Monday, Patriarch Twal said Pope Francis was very well informed about the situation of Christians who have fled the Middle East. He said the Pope “encouraged us to put our hope in the Lord, to pray for him, and he would pray for us.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.