- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008




An interfaith conference opened in Madrid Wednesday hoping to find a solution that would end disputes between the world’s major religions. The conference, organized by the World Muslim League at the behest of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, comes at a time when interreligious strife has increased the distrust among religions.

Religion-based violence, particularly in the Middle East, has pitted Christians against Muslims in Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. While acts of violence between Sunni Muslims and Shi’ite Muslims claimed hundreds of victims in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as in Pakistan and India. Religion-based strife has also led to bloodshed between Jews and Muslims in Palestine and Israel; and the denial of the Holocaust has contributed to rising tension in the region.

Indeed, finding a long-term solution to curb religious fanaticism will require more than the combined prayers of the 200 or so participants representing the world’s major religions meeting in the Spanish capital, as some sentiments run deep.

When asked how large his parish was, a Christian cleric based in a Muslim city where the Christian population declined over the years from several hundreds of thousands to nearly 3,000 today, the cleric replied, “All those which the Muslims did not kill.”

The conference includes Christians, Muslims, Jews as well as representatives of major Asian religions. Among those attending the opening session was the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, Michael Schneider, and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s specialist in Muslim affairs.

“We all believe in one God,” said King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at the opening of a three-day World Conference on Dialogue. “We are meeting here today to say that religions should be a means to iron out differences and not to lead to disputes,” said the Saudi king, who called for “constructive dialogue to open a new page to reconciliation after so many disputes.” He stressed that most of the past dialogue between religions ended in failure. “To succeed we must emphasize the common link between us, which is a belief in God,”King Abdullah said.

Spain’s King Juan Carlos attended Wednesday’s inaugural session at the Pardo Palace outside Madrid; it was open to the media. The remaining four sessions will be behind closed doors.

The choice of Spain as the site of the conference did not pass without some controversy with some observers questioning whether such a gathering - with the presence of Jews - could have ever been held in Saudi Arabia.

Yet despite a collegial atmosphere that permeated the conference, cordial entente between the people who follow these major religions might require something of a miracle. A simple explanation can be offered for the lack of optimism. As one Muslim scholar told the Middle East Times, parts of the problem with this dialogue conference is that they are preaching to the converted. The imams who go around issuing wild fatwas, or religious edicts, are unlikely to attend such conferences.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.

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