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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.

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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."

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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.