- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2008

MADRID (AP) | King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia exhorted followers of the world’s leading faiths to turn away from extremism and embrace a spirit of reconciliation, saying at the start of an interfaith conference Wednesday that history’s great conflicts were not caused by religion itself but by its misinterpretation.

“My brothers, we must tell the world that differences don’t need to lead to disputes,” Abdullah said, speaking through a Spanish interpreter. “The tragedies we have experienced throughout history were not the fault of religion but because of the extremism that has been adopted by some followers of all the religions, and of all political systems.”

Abdullah’s comments came at the start of a Saudi-sponsored gathering that aims to bring Muslims, Christians and Jews closer together at a time when the world often puts the three faiths at odds.

Spanish King Juan Carlos also addressed the gathering at a ceremonial palace on the outskirts of Madrid, saying he hoped the conference would be successful.

“We have always been interested in strengthening peace, dialogue and cooperation on the international stage,” he said.

The Saudis have billed the gathering as a strictly religious affair. There’s to be no mention of hot-button issues such as the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iranian nuclear ambitions or rising oil prices.

Other than the inaugural session, the conference was off-limits to journalists, and even getting official confirmation of the event schedule proved difficult. Saudi Embassy officials referred questions to a Spanish public relations company helping to organize the meeting, while the public relations company directed reporters to the embassy.

Detractors say the Saudis are the last people who should be hosting a meeting on religious tolerance.

Wahhabism - the strain of Sunni Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia - is considered one of the religion’s most extreme. Observers say the conference was being held in Spain partly because it would be politically unpalatable for Abdullah to allow Jewish and Christian leaders on Saudi soil.

Still, Abdullah has made reaching out to other faiths a hallmark of his rule since taking over the oil-rich kingdom following the death of his half brother in 2005. He met with Pope Benedict XVI late last year, the first meeting ever between a pope and a reigning Saudi king.

The three-day Madrid conference boasts a number of Jewish religious figures, including David Rosen, a prominent Irish-Israeli rabbi whose presence is being hailed as a sign the Saudis are serious about reaching out.

Mr. Rosen, however, is not listed as an Israeli in conference literature, prompting officials in the Jewish state to question the extent of the Saudis’ commitment.

Some other Jewish officials invited to the conference are more controversial, including Rabbi David Weiss, whose group, Neturei Karta, objects to the creation of Israel on the grounds that it violates Jewish religious law.

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