11/13/2008, 00.00
MIDDLE EAST
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A meeting at the UN on tolerance and peace between politics and religion

The meeting is being attended by representatives from about 80 countries. For the first time, an Israeli president addresses a Saudi king. But some criticize the initiative as Riyadh's attempt to be the only point of reference in the dialogue with Christianity.

New York (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Tolerance, the role of religion in reconciliation, and the search for dialogue for the sake of peace between Arabs and Israelis. These are the guidelines of the meeting that began yesterday at the UN, at which representatives of 80 countries around the world are speaking.

Particular interest was prompted by the political aspect of the engagement, which included the participation of some significant world figures. The president of Israel, Shimon Perez; of Lebanon, Michel Suleiman; of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai; and of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, all came to the meeting. With them were British prime minister Gordon Brown, Filipino president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and today, U.S. president George W. Bush.

The heads of state and prime ministers were also joined by representatives of the religious world, including Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue, and the imam Mohammad Saed Tantawy, the spiritual leader of Sunni Islam and the head of the Egyptian university of Al-Azhar. Their participation marked the connection between the event in New York and the two interreligious meetings in Mecca and Madrid, organized by King Abdullah in June and July of this year.

The Arab and Israeli press today emphasized how, for the first time, an Israeli head of state, Peres, directly addressed a Saudi king, Abdullah, to praise his initiative on behalf of peace in the Middle East. Nothing more. There were no private talks, and at the ceremonial dinner the two were seated at different tables, far away from each other. But Peres himself, accompanied by foreign minister and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, spoke of "new air" between Arabs and Israelis. "Today," he commented, "we have demonstrated the will, now we must find the way."

Of course, there was no lack of strident voices, like Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, who described Jerusalem as "the third most sacred place for Islam, where Mohammed ascended to heaven and where Jesus, the Christian, was resurrected," without even mentioning the Jews.

In his opening address, the UN secretary made special reference to the document signed by various Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders in the Spanish capital. Ban Ki-moon praised the initiative of the Saudi king as an attempt to build bridges between cultures and religions at a time when the sharpening of differences makes more and more room for extremist and violent tendencies. "Terrorism and criminality," the Saudi king asserted, "are the enemy of every religion and every civilization. They cannot emerge except through the lack of the principle of tolerance."

The theme of religious freedom was evoked by former French prime minister Alain Juppé, who called for recognition of "complete freedom of religion in all its aspects." "Religious freedom," he added, "cannot be realized without freedom of speech, even if this is sometimes used to express derision." Lebanese prime minister Suleiman spoke of the "common interest" in dialogue among different faiths, and emphasized "the disquiet raised by phenomena of confessional and ethnic violence."

Filipino president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo cited the example of the joint Pakistan-Indonesia-Philippines resolution for the promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue. Referring to the conflict underway in Mindanao between government forces and Islamic rebels, Arroyo downplayed the situation, stating that the country is working "to attain as much progress as possible on peace within the parameters of authentic religious dialogue among the communities."

But the meeting in New York has also raised controversy among associations for the defense of human rights and religious freedom. The Wahhabi regime of Riyadh, ultraconservative and closed off to any non-Muslim confession, in spite of the attempts at reform by the current monarch, is accused of sponsoring these interreligious dialogue meetings in order to promote an international image of Saudi Arabia that is far from the reality in the country. Some experts working in dialogue between Christianity and Islam note that these initiatives also conceal an attempt by King Abdullah to set himself up as the only point of reference in dialogue with Christianity. The Saudi royal house does not look favorably on the attention given to the letter of the 138 Muslim intellectuals, which gave rise to the Islamic-Catholic forum recently concluded at the Vatican. Summits like those in Mecca, Madrid, and New York are thought to serve Riyadh's interests of recovering leadership among the faithful of the Prophet, to the detriment of non-Wahhabi voices which until now have given indications of greater willingness to dialogue with the Holy See and Christian leaders.

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