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Islam and Pluralism ( 14 Nov 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Saudis in move to improve image of Islam

2. The Saudis' dubious interfaith agenda at the UN by Donald H. Argue and Leonard A. Leo


3. Bush, other leaders to promote interfaith dialogue at UN by Jane Lampman


4. Muslim, Catholic Dialogue to take place at Islamic Centre of Rochester




Saudis in move to improve image of Islam

By Abeer Allam in Riyadh, November 12 2008


Saudi Arabia is sponsoring a two-day United Nations conference in New York to promote interfaith dialogue to improve the image of Islam as a religion that favours dialogue over violence.

The conference, which begins on Wednesday, is seen as part of the Saudi monarch’s efforts to promote a more moderate brand of Islam in a kingdom that has been accused of breeding extremism since the September 11 attacks in 2001. By sponsoring interfaith events, King Abdullah may also be hoping to advance the debate over radicalism within the kingdom.

George W. Bush, US president, and Gordon Brown, UK prime minister, are among those listed to speak. Shimon Peres, Israeli president, and Tzipi Livni, foreign minister, will also attend.

“The dialogue comes at a time when the world is criticising Islam,” the Saudi monarch told local media. “It is regrettable that some of our sons have been tempted by Satan or the brothers of Satan.’’

Last year the king met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican; earlier this year, he arranged a conference of Muslim sects at the holy city of Mecca and, in July, he presided over a gathering of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists hosted by Spain.

The Vatican, however, is sceptical about the merit of the New York summit and concerned that the issue of religious freedom for Christians in Muslim countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, which permits no churches, will be pushed aside.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who will represent Pope Benedict at the UN and heads the Vatican’s interfaith efforts, said in a recent Reuters interview that “too many” Christian-Muslim initiatives were sowing “a bit of confusion”. However, he also praised King Abdullah for his courage in acting in spite of opposition from fundamentalist religious leaders in Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, adheres to the puritanical Wahabi Islam and fares poorly in international reports on religious freedom because it does not permit the open practice of other faiths and restricts or brands heretical other Muslim sects, including Shia, Sufi and Ismaili.

Some Saudis remain sceptical as to the local benefits of such a dialogue, however, particularly for the estimated 1.5m to 2m Shia living in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. Jafar al-Shayeb, a Shia activist, says: “They fulfil the purpose of improving the image abroad, but locally, we need an internal dialogue with a clear mandate to eliminate sectarian discrimination.”

Human Rights Watch urged world leaders in a statement on Tuesday to pressure King Abdullah to end discrimination against religious monitories in the kingdom. “There is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia,’’ says Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at the rights watchdog. “The dialogue should be about where religious intolerance runs deepest, and that includes Saudi Arabia.”

Additional reporting by Harvey Morris in New York and Guy Dinmore in Rome

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008



The Saudis' dubious interfaith agenda at the UN

The country's lack of religious freedom betrays its lofty rhetoric. The real aim of its 'dialogue' is to promote a global blasphemy law.

By Donald H. Argue and Leonard A. Leo

November 13, 2008

Washington - World leaders gathering at the United Nations this week for a special session of the General Assembly to advance interfaith dialogue should have no illusions that their efforts will miraculously promote mutual respect between religious communities or end abuses of religious freedom.

Saudi King Abdullah, who initiated this week's special session, is quietly enlisting the leaders' support for a global law to punish blasphemy – a campaign championed by the 56-member Organization of Islamic Conference that puts the rights of religions ahead of individual liberties.

If the campaign succeeds, states that presume to speak in the name of religion will be able to crush religious freedom not only in their own country, but abroad.

The UN session is designed to endorse a meeting of religious leaders in Spain last summer that was the brainchild of King Abdullah and organized by the Muslim World League. That meeting resulted in a final statement counseling promotion of "respect for religions, their places of worship, and their symbols ... therefore preventing the derision of what people consider sacred."

The lofty-sounding principle is, in fact, a cleverly coded way of granting religious leaders the right to criminalize speech and activities that they deem to insult religion. Instead of promoting harmony, however, this effort will exacerbate divisions and intensify religious repression.

Such prohibitions have already been used in some countries to restrict discussion of individuals' freedom vis-à-vis the state, to prevent criticism of political figures or parties, to curb dissent from prevailing views and beliefs, and even to incite and to justify violence.

They undermine the standards codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the keystone of the United Nations, by granting greater rights to religions than to individuals, including those who choose to hold no faith – or who would seek to convert.

Another stark irony hangs over the UN special session this week. Saudi Arabia is one of the world's worst abusers of religious freedom, a fact recognized by the Bush administration when it named it a "country of particular concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act in 2004. The king couldn't hold such a conference at home, where conservative clerics no doubt would purge the guest list of Jews from Israel, Baha'is, and Ahmadis.

The Saudi government permits the public practice of only one interpretation of Islam. This forces the 2-to-3 million Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and other expatriate workers there to leave their convictions at the border, since non-Muslim places of worship are prohibited, non-Muslim religious materials risk confiscation, and even private worship is affected by the strictures.

It also violates the rights of the large communities of Muslims who adhere to Islamic traditions other than the one deemed orthodox by Saudi clerics. In the past two years, dozens of Shiites have been detained for up to 30 days for holding small religious gatherings at home. One Ismaili, Hadi Al-Mutaif, is serving a life sentence after being condemned for apostasy in 1994 for a remark he made as a teenager that was deemed blasphemous. The alleged crime of apostasy, in fact, can be punished by death.

The government's policies are enforced by the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, a roving religious police force, armed with whips, that regularly oversteps its authority and is unchecked by the judiciary.

Women seeking to exercise basic freedoms of speech, movement, association, and equality before the law have experienced particularly severe abuse.

In a particularly egregious recent case, a woman was gang-raped as punishment by seven men who found her alone in a car with a man who was not her relative. She escaped the sentence of 200 lashes and six months in prison only because of a pardon by King Abdullah, yet he also said he believed the sentence was appropriate.

Holding a session on advancing interfaith dialogue abroad is a pale substitute for hosting it in the kingdom, where the message of respect for freedom of religion and belief is most needed.

Against the background of Saudi repression and the kingdom's role in exporting extremism, including through school textbooks preaching hatred of "unbelievers," the UN and every world leader attending the special session should be demanding an end to severe violations of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.

Dialogue is no substitute for compliance with universal human rights standards.

The monarch would make a far greater contribution by exponentially increasing his efforts to promote religious freedom at home, where religious intolerance reigns. A welcome first step would be to release Hadi Al-Mutaif and all other religious prisoners who remain behind bars in Saudi Arabia.

• Donald H. Argue and Leonard A. Leo are members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.



Bush, other leaders to promote interfaith dialogue at UN

The gathering follows a successful Muslim-Catholic forum at the Vatican.

By Jane Lampman, November 12, 2008

The global effort to build a "culture of peace" among Christians and Muslims and other faiths is gaining some momentum this month, both symbolically and substantively.

After a groundbreaking meeting between Roman Catholic and Muslim religious leaders last week, world political leaders this week are meeting to heighten the visibility and broaden the commitment to interfaith dialogue. On Nov. 12 and 13 at the United Nations, President Bush gathers with a dozen heads of state and other leaders to lend political backing to interfaith initiatives. The prime minister of Britain, leaders of several Muslim nations, and the presidents of Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine are among those participating.

"The idea is to send a unified clear message that the world community is in consensus in promoting interfaith dialogue and speaking against extremism, intolerance, and terrorism," says Rayed Krimly, special envoy of Saudi Arabia, whose king, Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, was the driving force behind this week's meeting. Heading a nation that has restricted other religions, King Abdullah "felt very strongly he needs to put his moral and political authority on the line." The king began calling for interfaith dialogue at a Muslim summit in Mecca in June and organized a multifaith conference in Madrid in July.

Human Rights Watch called Tuesday for world leaders to press Saudi Arabia to end religious discrimination at home.

The meeting follows a separate interfaith initiative – the first Catholic-Muslim forum at the Vatican – hosted by Pope Benedict XVI. The talks on Nov. 4-6 led to a 15-point declaration that leaders of both faiths say exceeded their expectations (see

"We've turned an important page in the whole history of Christian-Muslim relations," says Fr. James Massa, head of interreligious affairs for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. "What this conference has done is make the connection so clearly between core commitments of faith and respect for religious freedom and other human rights, and this is a remarkable achievement."

Among their commitments, the top leaders agreed on: the right of individuals to choose in matters of conscience and to practice their religion in private and public; that religious minorities are to be respected and are entitled to their own places of worship; that human dignity and respect should be extended on an equal basis to both men and women.

They agreed to hold a second forum in a Muslim-majority country and to explore "establishing a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergency situations."

Such a crisis-management effort could help deal with events like the Danish cartoon crisis or the recent attacks against Christian communities in Iraq, says Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for the Muslim delegation and director of SETA Foundation in Ankara, Turkey.

The Rome forum constitutes the third phase of meetings growing out of "A Common Word," the invitation to dialogue sent to all Christian churches in October 2007 by top clergy from across the Muslim world. The Muslims urged that dialogues be based on the shared principles of "love of God and love of one's neighbour."

Protestants met with Muslim leaders at Yale University in July. Anglicans hosted sessions at Cambridge University in Britain in October during which the participants read sacred texts together. Next spring, religious and political leaders will meet in Washington to consider political and social actions that might follow from the three dialogues.

The Catholic-Muslim interaction seemed most problematical. Two years ago, the pope's speech at Regensburg, Germany – in which he seemed to suggest Islam was a violent and irrational faith – shocked the Muslim world. Though his subsequent visit to Turkey quieted concerns to some degree, the Vatican was slowest to respond to the Muslim invitation to dialogue.

Under Pope Benedict, the Vatican had pulled back from the idea of theological discussion with Islam and emphasized "reciprocity," seeing that Christian churches got the same rights in Muslim countries as Muslims had in the West. Some Muslims worried the forum might be difficult. But participants were more than satisfied.


"The pope's reception was very warm," says Dr. Kalin. "The consensus was we don't have to have uniformity [in theology] in order to develop common strategies to deal with problems of the world. Overall, it was a very successful event."

[Editor's note: The original headline didn't express the full scope of the gathering.]



Muslim, Catholic Dialogue to take place at Islamic Centre

Nov 12, 2008

The Muslim Catholic Alliance will present a series, "Do Catholics and Muslims Share a Common Word?" during November.

The first program, "Who Speaks for Islam? Who Speaks for Christianity? The Challenge of Identifying the Authentic Contemporary Voice for Each of Our Religions," was Nov. 10. The other two programs, which will take place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Islamic Centre of Rochester, 727 Westfall Road, are:

 Nov. 17: "What is the Common Word We Share?" with Dr. David Bell and Dr. Susan Nowak, SSJ.

 Nov. 24: "Going Beyond Sharing a Common Word: The Urgency of Collaboration" with Anees Masood and Marvin Mich.

These events are free and open to the public. Each evening’s format will include brief focusing talks by facilitators; 40 minutes for break-out sessions; and 30 minutes for group discussion.

Cosponsors are the Commission on Christian Muslim Relations and the Centre for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue at Nazareth College. For details, call Deacon John Brasley at 585-328-3210 or the Islamic Centre at 585-442-0117. You may also visit

This program was convened in response to "A Common Word Between Us and You," the recent document authored by more than 100 leading Muslim leaders and addressed to all Christian leaders, particularly Pope Benedict XVI. The Vatican has invited many Muslim leaders to Rome this fall to discuss the document in detail.