Saudis host a global interfaith conference in Madrid: a 'first step'

The three-day meeting, which runs through Friday, has been cast as 'historic' but also criticized as a PR stunt.

By , Correspondent

More than 500 years after Spain's golden age of tolerance among Jews, Christians, and Muslims came to a definitive end, leaders of those faiths – as well as of Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism – are meeting at a royal palace on Madrid's outskirts in a bid to boost interreligious understanding.

In his opening remarks Wednesday at the three-day conference, host Saudi King Abdullah reminded his audience – nearly 300 religious, political, and cultural leaders from 50 different countries – of their shared purpose.

"If we want this historic encounter to succeed, we must look to the things that unite us: our profound faith in God, the noble principles and elevated ethics that represent the foundation of religions," he said.

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He linked societal woes like terrorism, racism, crime, drug abuse, and the breakdown of the family to losing touch with religion: "All this is the consequence of the spiritual void that people suffer once they distance themselves from God."

Because the conference is being hosted by Saudi Arabia, a country where religious pluralism is not tolerated, enthusiasm for the interfaith venture is tempered with a fair dose of caution. With sessions dedicated to broad themes like "Dialogue and Its Importance within Human Society," few attendees expect concrete gains or proposals to emerge from the gathering.

Rather, many stress that the meeting's importance lies with the mere fact that Saudi Arabia is hosting a conference on interfaith dialogue – and, for the first time, has invited Jews to such a meeting.

The dominant religion in Saudi Arabia is a conservative strand of Sunni Islam, sometimes called Wahhabism, which does not permit the open practice of non-Muslim faiths and often rejects interfaith dialog with their adherents.

"To see King Abdullah come and sit in a room with Christians, Jews, and other religious leaders, it is a moment in Islam much like what Vatican II was for the Catholic theology," Rabbi Burton Visotzky of New York's Jewish Theological Seminary told Reuters, referring to the 1962-1965 council at which the Vatican recognized the validity of other religions.

"It's a major step," agrees the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the American civil rights leader and a conference delegate. "For the king to use his moral authority to convene this session, to work for common ground – that's a very big step."

Tony Blair, who only the day before had canceled a trip to Gaza after Israeli intelligence uncovered an apparently advanced plot to kill him, was similarly encouraged. "This king has made a lot of reforms," says the former British prime minister, referring to Abdullah – who has put forth a more moderate stance since terrorist attacks hit his country in 2003 and 2004. "The fact that this conference is happening with the king, and with religious leaders of all different faiths, is significant."

Which is not to say that there weren't reminders of some of the more traditional aspects of Saudi politics and culture. No women are listed among the conference's formal speakers, for example. And although organizers invited the prominent Irish-Israeli rabbi David Rosen, who works for the American Jewish Committee from his base in Jerusalem, they did not list his nationality as Israeli. (Saudi Arabia does not recognize the state of Israel.)

Although the Saudi ambassador to Spain said that the decision to hold the conference in Madrid was based on "Spain's historic role as an important bridge between cultures," critics have said that the Saudis could not host the event in their own country because the law prohibits the practice of outside religions. Even taking place outside Saudi Arabia, the conference dropped the word "religious" from its title, making it simply "The World Conference on Dialogue" in an apparent effort to satisfy traditionalist Islamic clerics.

But at the symbolic level, at least, the conference offered the inspiring sight of the opening ceremony, where a bare-chested Hindu priest in orange silk pants embraced a man in a western-style suit and yarmulke, and a Saudi official in flowing robes and a kaffiyeh shook hands warmly with a Vatican representative wearing the crimson sash and cap that identified him as a cardinal.

For Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York, the conference was like a baby taking its first steps. "On the one hand, it's the most ordinary moment in the world," he says. "And on the other, it's the most important. But what matters is what the baby does next."

• Material from the Reuters was used.

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