U.N. Faith Forum Denounces Intolerance, Extremism

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008

UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 12 -- World leaders, senior diplomats and religious figures condemned extremism and terrorism Wednesday at a U.N. conference on interfaith dialogue that brought Israel and Arab countries together to promote tolerance.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, the event's chief sponsor, opened the meeting with a call for greater understanding in the Middle East, saying that religious and cultural differences in the region have "engendered intolerance, causing devastating wars and considerable bloodshed."

"Terrorism and criminality are the enemies of every religion and every civilization," said Abdullah, in his first address before the U.N. General Assembly as Saudi Arabia's leader. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended the speech, and President Bush will address the conference Thursday.

The conference provides an opportunity for Saudi Arabia, which prohibits the public practice of non-Islamic faiths, to present a more tolerant image on the world stage. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudis.

The meeting this week also provided Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni an opportunity to highlight her commitment to peace talks on the eve of elections in Israel, in which her ruling Kadima party will run on its ability to secure peace with the country's Arab neighbors. It also signaled that Israel's leaders are making some progress toward better relations with Saudi Arabia, which does not recognize Israel. In a rare gesture, Abdullah agreed to attend a dinner with the Israeli president on Tuesday night hosted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The two leaders, however, ate at separate tables and did not speak to each other.

Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomed Saudi Arabia's interfaith initiative today. He also praised elements of a Saudi-inspired Arab peace initiative, launched in 2002, saying its call for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict echoed Israel's peace strategy and is "inspirational and promising -- a serious opening for real progress."

"Your majesty, the king of Saudi Arabia, I was listening to your message. I wish that your voice will become the prevailing voice of the whole region, of all people," he said. "The initiative's portrayal of our region's future provides hope to the people and inspires confidence in nations."

Human rights groups, which maintain that Saudi Arabia is among the world's least tolerant countries, have voiced reservations about the interfaith initiative. European governments also expressed concern over recent attempts by Islamic governments to stifle criticism of Islam, even in the West. "Freedom of religion cannot be achieved without freedom of speech, even if it is sometimes used to express derision," said former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé, speaking on behalf of the European Union.

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