World Leaders Meet to Discuss Religious Tolerance

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Writer

The leaders of more than 80 nations convened at the United Nations this week to begin talks on fostering religious tolerance; however, differences are already hampering progress.

The first bone of contention among many heads of state is the fact that one of the world’s most intolerant nations – Saudi Arabia – is sponsoring the conference, making many question how much progress can be made.

“Saudi Arabia is not qualified to be a leader in this dialogue at the United Nations,” said Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi national who serves as director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, to The Washington Post. “It is the world headquarters of religious oppression and xenophobia.”

Saudi Arabians practice the strictest form of Islam, Wahhabism, and the country forbids the practice of any other form of religion, including other branches of Islam. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has also reported on the Saudi government’s use of textbooks to indoctrinate children to hate “infidels,” or non-Muslims.

 “There is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, to Agence France-Presse, “yet the kingdom asks the world to listen to its message of religious intolerance.” 
The Christian Post reports that other obstacles are also present at the conference, such as frustration over Western economic and social policies as well as anger over the Israeli-Arab conflict. These differences are already dividing leaders along Arab versus pro-Western lines.

For instance, Jordan’s King Abdullah II criticized Western policy, saying its “ignorance” has subjected Islam to “injustice.”

Israeli President Shimon Peres  made pointed remarks at Iran, saying “there are those in our region who sow hatred . . . those who seek to wipe out other people.”

Whether or not the conference will arrive at any kind of lasting declaration is doubtful. For instance, participants have already rejected a proposed Saudi text calling for the condemnation of the “mocking of religious symbols,” something that is highly offensive to Saudis and many Muslims. But Western nations rejected the text because they say it infringes on freedom of speech.

Participants are making a sincere effort, however. U.N. General Assembly president, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, a Catholic priest, denounced Western morals in his opening speech and said  the world needs to learn the positive lessons of religion.

Religion promotes “social responsibility,” he said, but the world has “become contaminated by the spirit of selfishness and individualism.”

In spite of their differences, world leaders such as U.S. President George W. Bush and Israel’s Peres welcomed Saudi King Abdullah’s call for the conference on religious tolerance.

This is not the first time the Saudis have sponsored such a gathering. In July, the Saudi King hosted a high profile interfaith dialogue in Madrid that concluded with an international agreement to fight the root causes of terrorism. The two-day U.N. meeting this week is seen as a follow-up to this previous effort.

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