Saudi king opens religious conference in Madrid
The landmark three-day conference marks the Saudi ruler’s first step in reaching out to people of other faiths.17 July 2008
MADRID - King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged followers of the world's main religions to turn their backs on extremism and embrace "constructive dialogue" at the start of a conference in Madrid Wednesday aimed at increasing interfaith understanding.
The landmark conference, which was opened by King Abdullah alongside Spain's King Juan Carlos at the El Pardo Palace, marks an unprecedented attempt by the Saudi ruler to reach out to people of other faiths in a sign that the ultraconservative Islamic kingdom could be inching toward reform.
"We are meeting here today to say that religions should be a way of resolving differences and not a cause of disputes," King Abdullah said in his inaugural speech.
"We need constructive dialogue to open a new page of reconciliation."
King Juan Carlos said he hoped the three-day conference would make progress toward a world that "ends the unacceptable barbarity of terrorism and fights against hunger, disease and poverty".
"[Spain] has always been interested in strengthening peace, dialogue and cooperation on the international stage," he added.
Saudi officials say Spain was chosen to host the conference because of its history as a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in relative harmony for a period of several hundred years.
Critics note, nonetheless, that it seems incongruous for King Abdullah to be organising a meeting of other faiths and speaking of tolerance no matter the location, given that in his own country all non-Islamic religious practices are prohibited.
What is likely to emerge from the conference when the participants end their closed-door roundtable talks on Friday is unclear.
The agenda focuses on common issues faced by people of all major faiths such as ethics, family and the environment, but there will be no mention of more controversial subjects such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Iraq war.
King Abdullah suggested Wednesday, however, that religion could help solve many of the world's problems.
"Terrorism..., the breakdown of families, drugs, exploitation of the weak - these are all are the consequences of a spiritual void," he said.
He also argued that religions themselves are not to blame for history's great conflicts, but rather the misinterpretation of religion by extremists.
"The tragedies we have experienced throughout history were not the fault of religion but due to the extremism adopted by some followers of all the religions, and of all political systems," he said.
Though the conference may be limited in scope and the 200 participants - among them Catholic bishops, Jewish rabbis, Buddhist monks and representatives of Hinduism - closely vetted by the Saudi organisers, it nonetheless represents an important step by Saudi Arabia to engage other faiths.
The conference is a "significant and timely development," Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress said in a statement.
"It is the duty of religious leaders to work together to restore respect for ethical values and to avoid a 'clash of civilizations'."
[El Pais / A. Eatwell / Expatica]