By Dan Eggen and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 14, 2008
UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 13 -- Employing unusually vivid religious imagery for the secular United Nations, President Bush on Thursday praised the "transformative and uplifting power of faith" and said religious belief "leads us to common values."
Addressing a two-day interfaith conference that has prompted mixed reactions from other leaders, Bush said religious belief "changed my life" and "sustained me through the challenges and joys of my presidency." He also suggested faith can transform relations between nations and cultures.
"One of my core beliefs is that there is an almighty God, and that every man, woman and child on the face of this Earth bears his image," Bush said. ". . . I know many of the leaders gathered in this assembly have been influenced by faith as well. We may profess different creeds and worship in different places, but our faith leads us to common values."
Bush's remarks came on the second day of a gathering championed by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who later met privately with Bush. Abdullah opened the conference Wednesday by calling for moderation in the Middle East, saying that religious differences in the region have "engendered intolerance, causing devastating wars."
Human rights groups assert that the event gives undue credibility to Abdullah even as his country enforces some of the world's harshest restrictions on religious practices. During his address, Bush instead argued that religious faith can bring people together.
The president also emphasized that democratic systems are best suited to encourage tolerance among different faiths. "We strongly encourage nations to understand that religious freedom is the foundation of a healthy and hopeful society," he said.
The conference prompted a sharp exchange between leaders who differed over the proper balance between freedom of speech and respect for religion.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the "cartoon crisis" -- a reference to the satirical Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, first published in 2005 -- was too provocative to be justified by free speech rights. "This freedom should be exercised responsibly," he said.
Norway, Germany and other European governments said they were not prepared to abandon their commitment to free speech as the price of an interfaith dialogue with Islam. "We hold the firm view that freedom of religion cannot be achieved without freedom of speech," said Norway's U.N. ambassador, Morten Wetland.
The more than 70 countries attending the conference issued a declaration affirming "their rejection of the use of religion to justify the killing of innocent people and actions of terrorism, violence and coercion which directly contradict the commitment of all religions to peace, justice and equality."