The three-day conference of religious leaders will start July 16 in
By Caryle Murphy | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
King Abdullah's initiative – a three-day meeting starting July 16 that will include Muslim, Christian, and Jewish clerics, as well as representatives of Eastern religions – stands out among interfaith gatherings that have become commonplace in the post-9/11 world.
Not only is
Ever since the kingdom experienced its own terrorist attacks in 2003-04, however, Abdullah and other officials have been stressing a more moderate, tolerant expression of their faith, sometimes over opposition from hard-liners in the religious establishment.
He has, for example, organized dialogues between Sunni and Shiites, who are regarded as heretics by hard-core Wahhabis.
Some observers see the international conference – first broached by Abdullah in March – as a way to strengthen his hand against extremist elements at home.
"It's very difficult to deal with [the radicals]) on an intellectual basis, to open up their minds," says Shiite political activist Jafar Al Shayeb. "So having these Muslim scholars from all different parts of the world pushing for a more tolerant course, I think will help the government in dealing with radical groups internally."
Hastily organized in the past month, the conference is not expected to achieve breakthroughs in the wide array of mutual grievances roiling relations between the Islamic world and the West, ranging from cartoons regarded as blasphemous by Muslims, to restrictions on religious freedoms in some Islamic countries, to the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Its advertised agenda focuses on the importance of dialogue and "how to preserve morality," says Hassan Al Ahdal, media director at the Mecca-based Muslim World League, which is organizing the event.
"At this moment, we're not going to indulge in any political issues," he adds. "There are so many other things on which we can find common ground."
Rabbi David Rosen, who directs the American Jewish Committee's international interreligious affairs, wrote in an e-mail that he hopes the conference will be "an opportunity to break down ... stereotypes, suspicion, and bigotry."
He is "very much" pleased by his invitation, he added, though he would have liked to see official Israeli Jewish representatives also invited.
Who would represent the Jewish faith at the conference has been a matter of deep interest since
The 200 invitees included vocal critics of Islam, notably the Rev. Franklin Graham, a conservative Evangelical who has called Islam an "evil and wicked" religion. He cannot attend because he is preparing for a trip to
Former Vice President Al Gore and the Archbishop of Canterbury were also invited, but declined because of prior engagements, their offices said.
Given the Saudi religious community's suspicions toward non-Muslims and deep hostility toward
Nihad Awad, founding executive director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, says the venue demonstrates that the Saudis are willing to meet Western religious leaders on their home turf.
"It's good to bring people in [to Saudi Arabia]; however, we want more Muslim scholars and leaders to go and interact with Western intellectuals, and Spain is a good choice to start with as it represents a place of interfaith tolerance historically," says Mr. Awad, who recently met Abdullah. "The fact that the king is going is a powerful statement that he's investing in this personally and wants it to succeed."
Rabbi Rosen, who also serves as chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Inter-religious Consultations, had a different view, writing that holding the conference in Saudi Arabia would have given it "far greater significance both in the Muslim world and in the 'West.' "
Abdullah first disclosed his plans for an interfaith dialogue during a meeting with visiting Japanese scholars last March, describing it as something that had "obsessed [him] since two years ago." He said he was preparing an initiative in which "believers of the three main religions: the Torah, Bible, and Koran will be of priority."
But all religions would be invited, he added, because "we all believe in the same God."
The goal would be "to agree on something that would maintain humanity against those who tamper [with] religions, ethics, and family systems." He said he was distressed by disintegrating family ties, a rise in atheism, and "an imbalance of reason, ethics, and humanity" in today's world.
Abdullah said he discussed the idea with Pope Benedict XVI when the two met at the
In early June, the king brought about 500 Muslim leaders from around the world to
The king made clear his concern about Islam's image, saying that it faces difficult challenges from Muslim extremists, who "target the magnanimity, fairness, and lofty aims of Islam." He urged the delegates "to face the challenges of isolation, ignorance, and narrow horizons, so that the world can absorb the good message of Islam."
The event closed with an endorsement of dialogue, paving the way for next week's conference in
Three faiths study together in
In a sunny room in
This is the vision of the Three Faiths Forum, which hopes that having Jews, Christians, and Muslims sit peacefully together after learning texts that touch on similar issues from their respective holy books will no longer be the exception, but the rule. Founded and based in
"This started out as an academic process, but our aim was to simply take the way scriptural reasoning was done and to allow young people who are faithful to their religions to come together and gain understanding,” says Miriam Feldman Kaye, the program director.
"Tools4 Trialogue" is the product of interfaith study among religious scholars in
"Weasked them to choose the themes and to present an interesting text from their faith tradition that will foster discussion on that theme,” explains Ms. Kaye.
"[T]hen we ... study these texts within themselves, without comparing them," adds Kaye, a British native who recently moved to
Kay acknowledges that this approach sometimes raises fears of one group trying to proselytize or influence another. But that, she emphasizes, is not the point. "We're not asking you to give up on your faith or political beliefs. We're asking you to be aware of the faith of the other."
The London-based director of the forum, Stephen Shashoua, says the program has been successful in many high schools throughout
"The program here, to start, will be about complementing existing work,” says Mr. Shashoua, who is from a Canadian-Iraqi family. "When we bring high school students together for an afternoon, we have them choose a theme, such as the environment." After they study the religious texts together, they choose a joint activity to put their learning into action. "After studying environmental texts, we'll go to a forest to plant trees together. The idea is moving from text to action."
Christian Science Monitor July 8, 2008