World leaders plead for religious tolerance

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UNITED NATIONS: World leaders pleaded Wednesday for religious tolerance at a UN conference sponsored by Saudi Arabia, but displayed their own rifts on the sensitive issue.

The meeting at UN headquarters in New York of representatives from 80 countries targeted religious and cultural divisions dubbed the clash of civilizations.

Saudi King Abdullah – who heads the ultra-orthodox Wahhabi branch of Islam and allows no other form of public worship – called for peace and harmony.

Speaker after speaker echoed these words, insisting that the world s major religions all back tolerance.

But anger over the Israeli-Arab conflict, as well as resentment at Western economic and social policies, soon surfaced.

Barely discussed, but also haunting the conference, was the divide between the West and Islamic countries on whether tolerance should also extend to individual freedoms.

Some 20 heads of state or government were due to speak, including US President George W. Bush on Thursday. He was represented Wednesday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In the opening speech, the president of the UN General Assembly, Miguel d Escoto Brockmann, lashed out at unbridled greed in the West.

Jordan s King Abdullah II also criticized Western policy, saying ignorance had subjected Islam to injustice.

Millions of people, especially young people, question whether the West means what it says about equality, respect and universal justice. Meanwhile, extremists – Muslim, Christian and Jewish -are thriving on the doubts and divisions, he said.

But if King Abdullah II, like other Muslim leaders, saw intolerance and stereotyping against Islam as the problem, Western representatives were mindful of the lack of personal freedom in the Islamic world.

The issue was doubly sensitive given that Saudi King Abdullah, who allows almost no religious or political dissent in his oil-rich kingdom, was sponsoring the conference.

In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush believed that the king of Saudi Arabia has recognized that they have a long way to go and that he is trying to take some steps to get there.

Representing France, former premier Alain Juppe echoed his Arab colleagues in urging tolerance and building and consolidating peace.

But he laid a very Western emphasis on human rights, especially recognizing unrestricted freedom of faith in all its forms.

Juppe also touched on free speech, an especially sore point given Islamic outrage at European newspapers printing of cartoons of Prophet Mohamed that devout Muslims found offensive.

Freedom of religion cannot be achieved without freedom of speech, even if it is sometimes used to express derision, Juppe said, without mentioning the cartoon controversy.

Carina Christensen, the culture minister for Denmark, where the cartoon row first blew up in 2005, also highlighted the importance of individual liberty.

The setting today reminds us that principles such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief should be the basis of all initiatives aimed at promoting intercultural and interfaith dialogue, she said.

Human Rights Watch and others were critical of King Abdullah s prominence at the tolerance conference.

But Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomed the king s initiative as unprecedented, saying this would have been impossible just a decade ago.

What we are witnessing today is a new beginning, Peres said at a press conference. What was today demonstrated was the will. We now have to work for the way. King Abdullah pushed for the conference as a follow-up to efforts at promoting inter-faith dialogue in the World Conference on Dialogue held last July in Madrid. It was not clear whether the session will end with a UN resolution or a lower-grade declaration -or no statement at all. -AFP

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