- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia | An interfaith conference in Spain this week will give Saudi Arabia a chance to declare its “openness” and willingness to cooperate with the international community, a Saudi organizer said Tuesday.

King Abdullah will open the three-day meeting Wednesday after winning the backing of Sunni and Shi’ite clerics to go ahead with the groundbreaking idea in Mecca in June.

The interfaith idea has sparked interest from Jewish and Christian groups around the world, coming after the Saudi king held talks with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican last year.

It marks a new direction for Saudi Arabia, whose “Wahhabi” Islam has come in for criticism internationally after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Riyadh’s main ally and guarantor of security since the 1940s.

Fifteen of the 19 Arabs who killed about 3,000 people were Saudis, acting in the name of Saudi-born al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

“Saudi Arabia, on whose ground the global message of Islam was launched, affirms to the whole world its openness and cooperation with the world community,” Reuters news agency quoted Abdullah al-Turki, head of the Muslim World League which is organizing the event, as saying.

The Madrid meeting is expected to include not only Shi’ites, Christians and Jews but figures from outside the major monotheistic religions such as Buddhists, who are looked upon by most Saudi clerics as heathens.

Saudi clerics have traditionally viewed Muslims from other branches of the faith, particularly Shi’ites, as infidels and shunned contact with non-Muslims. Only one delegate from predominantly Shi’ite Iran was invited, and it was not clear whether he would attend.

In a sign of possible opposition from the Saudi clerical establishment, a participant already in Madrid said the word “religious” had a been removed from the conference’s official title and that so far no senior Saudi clerics had turned up.

The official Saudi Press Agency reported Mr. al-Turki as saying the conference would avoid theological questions and focus instead on “human issues” and challenges faced throughout the world.

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