Sunday, June 8, 2008

Amazing proposal: Saudi Interfaith dialogue

If this proposed dialogue really takes place, it can be more important for inter-faith relations than Vatican II. It would also, at one stroke, put Saudi Arabia and Sunni Islam squarely in the forefront of the Muslim world, just as Vatican II restored much of the leadership of the Catholic Church.
A master stroke. But it will also invite fierce and violent opposition from radical Mujahedin  groups that insist that Saudi Arabia is "poisoned" by the presence of non-Muslims. King Abdullah has taken quite a risk.
This initiative should be welcomed and encouraged by all persons of good will.
Ami Isseroff
Saudi king prepares ground for interfaith meeting
Jordan Times Sunday, June 8th, 2008

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has won backing from Muslim clerics from around the world for an interfaith dialogue with Christians and Jews, state media reported on Saturday.

Some 500 religious scholars and academics gathered for a 3-day conference in Mecca which ended on Friday as the first step of a plan announced by the Saudi king this year to create a dialogue with other faiths.

The king's call, which followed a meeting with Pope Benedict at the Vatican last year, sparked much interest from Jewish and Christian groups around the world.

The Mecca meeting recommended "conferences, forums and discussion groups between the followers of the prophetic messages, and relevant civilisations, cultures and philosophies to which academics, media and religious leaders will be invited", according to the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

It said the participants, who included Egypt's Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar Mohammad Sayed Tantawi and former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, established that a dialogue with other faiths was legitimate in Islam.

SPA gave no more details, but a gathering of Jewish and Christian clerics in Saudi Arabia would be ground-breaking.

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites, sees itself as the leader of Sunni Islam. It promotes a hardline school of Islam called Wahhabism which has traditionally seen some other Muslims and non-Muslims as "infidels".

But Riyadh has been making efforts to build better ties with Washington and improve its international image after the September 11 attacks of 2001, in which 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudi.

Saudi Islamist militants also launched a violent campaign to overthrow the monarchy in 2003, denouncing the rulers as un-Islamic.

Although the official religious establishment is on board for the king's interfaith effort, many Wahhabi clerics remain opposed even to talking to Shiite Muslims.

A group of independent clerics issued a statement last week saying Shiites, including Lebanese group Hizbollah, were posturing against Israel to hide an anti-Sunni agenda.

Some Shiites said that, despite the presence of Iran's Rafsanjani, few of their number were invited to the Mecca meeting. None came from Europe or North America and one from Saudi Arabia's own Shiite minority, which complains that it is given second class status.

The final statement said the conference called for "communication between Islamic sects in an effort to unite the Islamic nation and lighten the effects of fanaticism".

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