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Saudi Arabia: Jewish-led interfaith group plant date palms in Medina

A local landowner invites an interfaith group to plant date palms on his private farm in the city
Palm trees amid rolling dunes on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, 1 February 2021 (AFP)
Palm trees amid rolling dunes on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, 1 February 2021 (AFP)

A Saudi landowner has invited a delegation of British Jews to plant date palms on his private farm in Medina as part of an interfaith trip to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Earlier this month, Rick Sopher, 63, a Jewish philanthropist from London, led an interfaith group that included Jews, Muslims and Christians on a trip to the region to understand culture, religion and history.

In an interview published on Monday, Sopher told the Jewish Chronicle (JC) that the event marked the first time that Jews planted date palms in Medina for 1,400 years.

"An invitation to plant a palm tree in the place where Jews had once looked after them had a special resonance," Sopher said.

While in Saudi Arabia, the group met religious scholars, artists and Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, secretary general of the Muslim World League, in Saudi Arabia. They also met with prominent scholar Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, a Catholic bishop and Jewish rabbis in the UAE.

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During their visit to Medina, one of the three holy places for Muslims alongside Mecca and Jerusalem, a local landowner invited them to plant date palms on his private palm farm as a "gesture of friendship".

The group, which also included business people, researchers at Cambridge University and philanthropists, planted saplings of an ajwa date tree.

"If anyone had told me five or even 10 years ago that I would be able to come to Saudi Arabia ... I would hardly have believed them," Sopher said. "But not just to come to Saudi Arabia, but to be received in such a friendly, hospitable way, is really something marvellous."

Five years ago, Saudi Arabia lifted a visit ban on non-Muslims to Medina as part of the country's plan to open its historical and religious places to tourists and foreign visitors.

"I hope that this wonderful moment is going to lead to more wonderful moments of fraternity and being together, and coexistence and peaceful harmony. It’s really a heartwarming occasion," Sopher said.

Sopher is of Iraqi-Jewish descent and the chairman of the Sephardi Centre in London.

His group also visited the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, which opened in February and include a mosque, a synagogue, and a church. 

The Abrahamic Family was built following the normalisation of ties between the UAE and Israel in 2020 as part of the so-called Abraham Accord. 

Saudi Arabia did not join the UAE, BahrainMorocco and Sudan in establishing diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, but opened its air space to all flights to and from Israel in July last year.

In January, the Saudi foreign minister reiterated Riyadh's position that it will not normalise ties with Israel until Palestinians are granted statehood.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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