Saudi king calls for interfaith dialogue

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By DONNA ABU-NASR and ABDULLAH SHIHRI, Associated Press Writers Tuesday Mar 25

King Abdullah is calling for a dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews, the first such proposal from this strictly Muslim kingdom at a time of mounting tensions between followers of Islam and those of other religions.

In a speech late Monday, Abdullah said the country’s top clerics gave him the green light to pursue his idea. Their backing is crucial in a religiously conservative society that expects decisions taken by its rulers to adhere to Islam’s tenets.

The monarch, whose kingdom follows a severe interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism and bans non-Muslim religious services and symbols, said he discussed the idea with Pope Benedict XVI when they met at the Vatican last year.

“The idea is to ask representatives of all monotheistic religions to sit together with their brothers in faith and sincerity to all religions as we all believe in the same God,” the king told delegates to a seminar titled “Culture and the Respect of Religions.”

His remarks were reported by the official Saudi Press Agency.

“I have noticed that the family system has weakened and that atheism has increased. That is an unacceptable behavior to all religions, to the Quran, the Torah and the Bible,” Abdullah said. “We ask God to save humanity. There is a lack of ethics, loyalty and sincerity for our religions and humanity.”

Abdullah’s call is significant. The Saudi monarch is the custodian of Islam’s two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina, a position that lends his words special importance and influence among many Muslims.

His message for tolerance comes at a time of mounting Muslim anger over the republication by Danish newspapers of cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and the weekend high-profile conversion of a Muslim commentator to Roman Catholicism.

Abdullah did not say whether Muslim clerics from Saudi Arabia would be willing to meet with Jewish leaders from Israel. Saudi Arabia and all other Arab nations except Egypt and Jordan do not have diplomatic relations with Israel and generally shun unofficial contacts.

In Israel, Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger welcomed Abdullah’s call. “Our hand is outstretched to any peace initiative and any dialogue that is aimed at bringing an end to terror and violence,” he said in a statement.

Rabbi David Rosen, head of inter-religious relations at the American Jewish Committee, said he was “delighted” by the Saudi announcement.

“Religion is all too often the problem, so it has to also be the solution, or at least part of the solution, and I think that the tragedy of the political initiatives to bring peace has been the failure to include the religious dimension,” Rosen said.

Since coming to power in August 2005, Abdullah has taken steps to encourage dialogue among his kingdom’s Sunni Muslim majority and its other Muslim sects, including Shiites. His meeting with Benedict was the first between a Saudi monarch and a pope.

Abdullah said he plans to hold conferences to get the opinion of Muslims from other parts of the world as well as meetings “with our brothers in all religions which I mentioned, the Torah and Bible, so we can agree on something that guarantees the preservation of humanity against those who tamper with ethics, family systems and honesty.”

Abdullah said that if such an agreement is reached, he plans to take his proposal to the United Nations.

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