Saudi king opens Madrid inter-faith conference

"To have a dialogue, just to start talking to each other, is an accomplishment in itself," says the Saudi Ambassador to Spain.

king abdullah 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
king abdullah 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Cautious optimism greeted the opening of an interfaith conference in Madrid on Wednesday initiated by Saudi King Abdullah. While no Israelis were invited, making it "a very partial overture, they didn't invite any Palestinians either," said veteran interfaith activist Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, who, though Israeli, is listed in conference literature as an American representative. "They clearly didn't want to focus on Israeli-Palestinian issues," Rosen said, highlighting the stated Saudi goal of keeping political issues - including the Iranian nuclear program and other sensitive matters - far from the closed-door discussions in Madrid. "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." According to participants, the conference showed that the Saudis were not used to interfaith diplomacy. "It's clear from the organization that they've never done this sort of thing before," said Rosen, adding that the Saudis did not seem to know who would be appropriate to invite and who not. For example, said Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the World Jewish Congress, the Saudi government invited Natorei Karta's Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, a persona non-grata in much of the Jewish world after his attendance of a Holocaust denial conference in Teheran in 2006. In the end, perhaps in a sign of a changing dynamic between Muslims and Jews in the US, Weiss was disinvited because American Muslim leader Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America protested to the Saudi ambassador in Washington and threatened to withdraw from the event himself if Weiss remained on the invitation list. Schneier is also at the conference to announce new Jewish-Muslim initiatives to take place later in the year, including a series of television commercials in time for Ramadan and Rosh Hashana in which rabbis and imams are shown together calling for tolerance, and an effort in November to pair synagogues and mosques for dialogue at the grassroots level. But interfaith dialogue with American Muslims is not as surprising as the same dialogue with the Saudi government, which holds the anti-Western Wahhabi interpretation of Islam as its official religion. 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. "If this is a public relations stunt," said Schneier, "we're back in the same place, nothing gained and nothing lost. But if there's a way to help Muslims strengthen the voices of moderation, we need to be joining this fight." Rosen believes the Saudi call for dialogue is likely sincere. "Even if these guys are by no means pluralistic liberals of the most generous mentality and orientation, if you're a believing Muslim who believes Islam has a constructive message for the world, you understand that Islam has to do serious work rehabilitating its image," he said. Abdullah has engaged in public outreach to other religions since taking over the oil-rich kingdom following the death of his half brother Fahd in 2005. He met with Pope Benedict XVI late last year, the first meeting ever between a pope and a reigning Saudi king. In June, Abdullah held a religious conference in Mecca in which participants pledged improved relations between Islam's two main branches - Sunni and Shi'ite. At that meeting Abdullah also rejected extremism, saying that Muslims must present Islam's "good message" to the world.