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Mixed views on Saudi interfaith forum

By Christopher Landau
BBC religious affairs correspondent, Madrid

Saudi King Abdullah (left) shakes hands with New York's Rabbi Arthur Schneier
Several hundred delegates attended the conference
A major gathering of the world's religious leaders has called on governments to combat the association between religion and terrorism and promote constructive dialogue between those of religious faith.

In a communique issued at the end of the conference in Madrid, religious leaders affirmed their shared concern for family life and the environment, and urged the United Nations to hold a special session on dialogue between religions and cultures.

The World Conference on Dialogue was the personal initiative of the King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and organised by the Saudi-based Muslim World League.

Critics have challenged the forum's organisers on the lack of female speakers and the absence of any Jewish delegates from Israel.

'New page'

In spite of such criticisms, the gathering remained unique in its scope, with Catholic priests rubbing shoulders with Buddhist monks, Islamic leaders and Jewish rabbis as well as those of several other faiths.

This conference is a very strong signal, from the top, that the true faith of Islam is about peaceful coexistence
Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister

King Abdullah began the conference by telling delegates that he brought them a message from a meeting of Islamic leaders last month.

He said it was "a message that declares that Islam is the religion of moderation and tolerance, a message that calls for constructive dialogue among followers of religions, and a message that promises to open up a new page for mankind, in which concord will replace conflict".

Criticism

Also present was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who recently launched his own inter-faith foundation.

In a BBC interview, Mr Blair said that the conference was of "tremendous significance" given that it was initiated by the Saudi king.

"For many people round the world who are uncertain about what their relationship with Islam should be, who may often think that there are people within Islam who are hostile to those of other faiths who don't believe in peaceful co-existence - this conference is a very strong signal, from the top, that the true faith of Islam is about peaceful co-existence," Mr Blair said.

Some of the great religious divides in today's world were conspicuous in their absence from the conference agenda.

Deliberations were tightly controlled, with some delegates expressing frustration that were was little opportunity for open debate.

There was no formal session dealing with the Middle East peace process - discussions became heated when delegates raised whether there could be effective dialogue between Muslims and Jews.

'Photo opportunity'

Although there were many Jewish delegates present, the published list of those invited to the conference listed no Israeli residents.

Rabbi David Rosen, chairman of the international Jewish committee for inter-religious consultations, was invited in an American capacity - though he is an Israeli citizen.

"If there's to be a serious engagement with the Jewish people then it has to involve Israeli religious leadership substantially and centrally," he said.

The rabbi added that he was attending the conference to support a process, which he hoped would lead to meetings involving Israeli Jewish leaders inside Saudi Arabia.

"If it doesn't do that, it's just another photo opportunity," he said.

Mixed views

The role of women in religious leadership - and at the conference - was also raised.

Of the several hundred delegates, only a tiny proportion were women, and some delegates complained that no women were due to speak from the platform during the three-day meeting.

Dr Mekia Nedjar, a female Muslim delegate from Spain, was a late addition to the conference programme, and her inclusion was met with warm applause.

This conference was unprecedented as a Saudi initiative, and has largely been met with optimism by those attending.

But delegates have mixed views about whether the meeting will lead on to a concrete progress that builds better relationships between the world's religious faiths.

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