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Peres lauds Saudi king peace plan

Israeli President Shimon Peres speaking at the interfaith summit in New York on 12/11/08
Shimon Peres said there is a will to bring peace in the Middle East

Israeli President Shimon Peres has praised the king of Saudi Arabia for his Middle East peace initiative.

At an interfaith meeting at the United Nations, Mr Peres told King Abdullah he hoped his would be the "prevailing voice of the whole region".

The Saudi plan, proposed in 2002, calls for Israel to withdraw from occupied land in exchange for Arab recognition.

US President George W Bush challenged Saudi Arabia's outlawing of apostasy, the ability to change religion.

At the conference Mr Bush said that it was a fundamental human right, "everyone has the right to choose or change religions and the right to worship in private or public".

King Abdullah organised the two-day conference in New York to promote a dialogue on religion and culture.

He told the meeting of world leaders that it was time to learn the lessons of the past.

The [Saudi] initiative's portrayal of our region's future provides hope to the people and inspires confidence in the nations
Shimon Peres

"Terrorism and criminality are the enemies of each and every religion and civilisation," he said, speaking through an interpreter.

"They wouldn't have appeared had it not been for the upset of the principles of tolerance."

Highly symbolic

When Mr Peres took to the floor, he broke off from his prepared speech to address King Abdullah directly.

"Your Majesty, the king of Saudi Arabia," he said. "I was listening to your message. I wish that your voice will become the prevailing voice of the whole region, of all people. It's right. It's needed. It's promising.

"The initiative's portrayal of our region's future provides hope to the people and inspires confidence in the nations."

The Saudi King with Ban Ki-Moon in New York
The Saudi-organised conference has been criticised by rights groups

Diplomats described it as a highly symbolic moment, the BBC's UN correspondent, Laura Trevelyan, said.

The question is whether it means anything for the Middle East peace process, she adds.

Mr Peres told reporters afterwards that he believed they were a step closer to that goal, while acknowledging there were still significant obstacles to overcome.

"I don't deny there are open and difficult questions, but if there is a will - as the Arabs are saying - there is a way. What was today demonstrated was the will. We know that we have to work for the way."

UN Secretary-General, the outgoing US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown are among the world leaders attending the conference.

The event has been criticised by human rights groups who say it gives a platform to Saudi Arabia, which practises the strict Wahabi form of Islam and allows no other type of public worship. Rights groups also strongly criticise the kingdom's general human right record.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said President Bush believed "the king of Saudi Arabia has recognised that they have a long way to go and that he is trying to take some steps to get there".

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