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

A Saudi landowner has invited a British Jewish delegation to visit his private farm in Medina as part of an interfaith tour to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Earlier this month, Rick Sopher, 63, a Jewish philanthropist from London, led an interfaith group including 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 was the first time Jews planted a date palm in Medina in 1,400 years.

“An invitation to plant a palm tree in the place where Jews once cared for them had a particular resonance,” said Sopher.

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

The group, which also included businessmen, researchers at the University of Cambridge and a philanthropist, planted saplings of the 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 only to come to Saudi Arabia, but to be received in a friendly, welcoming way, it’s really a wonderful thing.”

Five years ago, Saudi Arabia lifted a ban on non-Muslims visiting Medina as part of the country’s plan to open its historic and religious sites to tourists and foreign visitors.

“I hope that this wonderful moment will lead to more wonderful moments of brotherhood and togetherness, and that there will be peaceful coexistence and harmony. It is a heartwarming event,” said Sopher.

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

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

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

Saudi Arabia did not join the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan in establishing diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, but opened its airspace 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 normalize ties with Israel until the Palestinians are granted statehood.

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