World leaders discuss interfaith tolerance at UN

Saudi King Abdullah has been lead sponsor of a UN conference on the "Culture of Peace", aimed at healing religious divides. World leaders called for tolerance amid lingering tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Western foreign policy.


World leaders pleaded Wednesday for religious tolerance at a UN conference sponsored by Saudi Arabia, but were unable to escape internal rifts of their own.

The meeting at UN headquarters in New York of representatives from 80 countries targeted religious and cultural divisions dubbed the "clash of civilizations."

Saudi King Abdullah -- who heads the ultra-orthodox Wahhabi branch of Islam and allows no other form of public worship -- called for "peace and harmony."

Speaker after speaker echoed these words, insisting that the world's major religions all back tolerance.

But anger over the Israeli-Arab conflict, as well as resentment at Western economic and social policies, soon surfaced, reflecting tensions behind the talk of goodwill.

Barely discussed, but also haunting the conference, was the divide between the West and Islamic countries over exactly what tolerance means.

More than a dozen heads of state were due to speak, including US President George W. Bush on Thursday. He was represented Wednesday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In the opening speech, the president of the UN General Assembly, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, lashed out at Western morals and warned the world desperately needs to learn the positive lessons of religion.

His attack on the "unbridled greed" of the "dominant" Western culture was likely to strike a chord among many at the conference.

Jordan's King Abdullah II also criticized Western policy, saying "ignorance" had subjected Islam to "injustice."

"Millions of people, especially young people, question whether the West means what it says about equality, respect and universal justice. Meanwhile, extremists -- Muslim, Christian and Jewish -- are thriving on the doubts and divisions," he said.

But if King Abdullah II, like other Muslim leaders, saw intolerance and stereotyping against Islam as the problem, Western representatives were mindful of the lack of personal freedom in the Islamic world.

The issue was doubly sensitive given Saudi King Abdullah's sponsorship of the conference and was only indirectly addressed.

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

Representing France, former premier Alain Juppe echoed his Arab colleagues in urging "tolerance and building and consolidating peace."

But he laid a very Western emphasis on human rights, especially "recognizing unrestricted freedom of faith in all its forms."

Juppe also touched on free speech, an especially sore point given Islamic outrage at European newspapers' printing of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that devout Muslims found offensive.

"Freedom of religion cannot be achieved without freedom of speech, even if it is sometimes used to express derision," Juppe said, without mentioning the cartoon controversy.

Critics in the run-up to the conference homed in on Saudi King Abdullah's role, questioning whether the leader of the Wahhabi sect was the right person to promote inter-faith relations.

Wahhabism is a rigid form of Islam. Under Saudi rule, other Islamic sects and other religions are either restricted or banned altogether in public.

"There is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, yet the kingdom asks the world to listen to its message of religious tolerance," Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said ahead of the conference.

However, Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomed the king's initiative as "unprecedented" and impossible just a decade ago.

"What we are witnessing today is a new beginning," he said at a press conference. "What was today demonstrated was the will. We now have to work for the way."

King Abdullah pushed for the conference as a follow-up to efforts at promoting inter-faith dialogue in the "World Conference on Dialogue" held last July in Madrid.

The Madrid declaration was noted for its call for an international agreement on fighting the root causes of terrorism.

This time it is not clear whether the session will end with a UN resolution or a lower-grade declaration, said Enrique Yeves, spokesman for d'Escoto. "They are still negotiating among themselves," he said.

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