A Saudi-sponsored conference that will bring together Israeli and American rabbis with clerics from the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam – as well as global religious leaders of nearly every persuasion – opens in Madrid today.
The conference, the brainchild of Saudi King Abdullah, who has cast it as a way to ease tensions between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, is part of an effort to reposition oil-rich Saudi Arabia as a force for moderation in the region.
“To have a dialogue, just to start talking to each other, is an accomplishment in itself,” said Saudi Ambassador to Spain Saud Bin Naif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. “At this point in time the whole world needs to start talking to each other. This is what we hope we can achieve.”
Saudi Arabia has presented the conference as a strictly religious initiative - not a political one.
However, it also has political implications, coming from a Mideast heavyweight that does not have diplomatic ties with Israel.
King Abdullah has made headlines recently by reaching out to leaders of other faiths. In November, he met with Pope Benedict XVI, the first meeting ever between a pope and a reigning Saudi king.
At a gathering of Muslim scholars, clerics and other figures in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia in June, King Abdullah said that Muslims must turn away from the dangers of extremism and present Islam’s “good message” to the world.
His efforts have generally been welcomed in Israel and by the Jewish community, as well as in the Arab world.
“The conference provides a rare opportunity for strengthening mutual respect between the followers of the three main religions,” Monsignor Nabil Haddad, head of the Melkite Catholic community in Jordan and a participant at the conference, said.
Still, detractors say the Saudis are the last people who should be hosting a conference on religious tolerance.
Wahhabism – the strain of Sunni Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia – is considered one of the religion’s most conservative and Saudi Arabia has sometimes strained ties with Islam’s other major branch, Shiism.
Only one delegate from predominantly Shiite Iran was invited, and it was not clear whether he would attend.