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World leaders gather for faith debate

Organisers hope King Abdullah's inter-religion event will help improve relations among the world's faithful.

NEW YORK // As world leaders converge on Manhattan this morning for one of the most well-attended inter-religion debates, organisers hope the event will help improve relations among the world's faithful. The initiative of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has attracted a bevy of statesmen including George W Bush, the US president, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, the Kuwaiti Emir, and Gordon Brown, Britain's prime minster. With the clock ticking, diplomats at UN headquarters have spent the week drafting and debating nuances of a General Assembly resolution that could define the future of religious co-operation among nations. A draft resolution sponsored and circulated by Pakistan and the Philippines highlights the importance of "inter-religious, intercultural and intercivilisational dialogue" and describes the "commitment of all religions to peace". The document suggests the creation of an "autonomous dialogue forum on world religions" - a permanent body hosting delegates of governments and faith groups designed to defuse theological strife. Today's meeting highlights the importance world leaders now attach to building bridges and helping followers of different faiths resolve differences without resorting to violence. While tensions have existed between adherents of different faiths for millennia, a recent explosion in political and religious extremism has spurred King Abdullah and other statesmen to seek an antidote. The September 11 attacks were the most deadly among a number of outrages that showcased the threat posed by al Qa'eda's firebrand fusion of political dissent and Islamist ideology. The subsequent US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as part of Mr Bush's "war on terror", compounded by ongoing friction between Jews and Muslims across Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories, served to deepen tensions. The result has been an incendiary cocktail of political and religious identities that spilled over into violence after the Sept 2005 publication of cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Other low-points in cross-faith relations include Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 address at the University of Regensburg and the pontiff's conversion of Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born Muslim, this year. The growing spectre of religious discord spurred faith leaders to organise seminars in which Jews, Christians, Muslims and - in some cases - leaders of non-Abrahamic creeds, strived for consensus on doctrinal discrepancies. One of the most successful projects, A Common Word Between Us and You, has seen senior Muslims and Christians repeatedly meet and exchange letters to discuss shared concepts between the world's two main faiths. King Abdullah, promoted as a moderate leader seeking to reform his conservative kingdom, has spearheaded a solo interfaith enterprise, meeting Pope Benedict in the Vatican last year, bringing Sunni and Shia clerics to Mecca in March and religious leaders to Madrid in June. Aware that 15 of the 19 al Qa'eda militants of September 11 were Saudis, King Abdullah has blasted terrorists for staining the reputation of Islam and called on Muslims to extend "hands to their brothers in other religions". The monarch's meeting - called the Culture of Peace - in midtown Manhattan today is technically being hosted by Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, the president of the UN General Assembly and a Nicaraguan priest. Enrique Yeves, who is Mr d'Escoto's spokesman, said delegations from 65 countries would grapple with such world issues as inter-faith discord and global economic meltdown while sharing mankind's accumulated wisdom "from Confucius to Karl Marx". The president hopes the event will establish "the values and heroic behaviours needed to face the current crises and provide much-needed ethical values to international relations", Mr Yeves said. The two-day event has garnered substantial support from Muslim nations, attracting heads of state from Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Pakistan, Lebanon and high-level delegations from Qatar, Morocco, Djibouti, Egypt, Oman and Yemen. The UAE delegation features Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed, Supreme Council member and Ruler of Fujairah, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Reem al Hashimi, Minister of State. Western nations have displayed a relatively lacklustre response, with Britain's prime minister and the US leader the only senior figures to attend. Cynics claim world leaders are only making a pit-stop at UN headquarters before getting down to more serious business at the two-day financial crisis summit being staged in Washington on Friday. World economic meltdown is just one of the issues that threaten to dominate the headlines during the religion parley, particularly given the expected attendance of Shimon Peres, Israel's president, and Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister and new leader of the ruling Kadima party. UN pundits question whether Israel's high-level Israeli delegation to a Saudi-sponsored event indicates a greater willingness to broker peace between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbours. Some speculate on whether there could be renewed efforts towards the peace plan proposed by Saudi in 2002. Another question is whether Mr Peres and King Abdullah will shake hands. The 85-year-old monarch will also have to face his critics in New York, with US-based activists campaigning against the lack of religious freedom in Saudi. But supporters say King Abdullah has achieved a diplomatic coup in attracting an all-star cast to New York that will pressure Saudi conservatives to permit ever-greater reforms in the desert kingdom. Saudi clerics have shown little support for the monarch's interfaith series and the Grand Mufti, who represents the state's official views on religious affairs, did not attend the gathering in Spain this year. "This event hits at the extremists, who we say are wrong in terms of Islam," Mohammed al Zulfa, a liberal member of the consultative Shura Assembly, told Reuters. "There is opposition [to reform] from conservatives who have spent three decades controlling education, media, mosques and the street." While King Abdullah may dent support for hardliners at home, there also remain doubts as to whether his inter-faith project will achieve the unity between nations that it seeks to attain. Cross-religious conferences generally see scholars endlessly debate theological technicalities that would confuse laymen, while today's summit between political leaders presents its own difficulties. One of the long-running sticking points plaguing the achievement of cross-faith harmony has been demands from those across the Islamic world for guarantees of "freedom from religious defamation". While those in the West cherish the freedom to express controversial opinions - such as the dozen illustrations in Jyllands-Posten or Salman Rushdie's controversial 1988 novel The Satanic Verses - some Muslims claim such blasphemies are intolerable. The debate has seen members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference back General Assembly resolutions urging nations to take steps against the defamation of religion, while predominantly western nations continue to advocate for free speech. The compromise presented in the draft resolution being circulated this week in the corridors of the United Nations presents the world body's trademark distillation of complex and contradictory ideas into a single paragraph. The draft resolution "emphasizes that everyone has the right to freedom of expression and reaffirms that the exercise of this right carries with it special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall be only such as are provided by law and necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals". Whether King Abdullah's meeting can bypass the convoluted compromises of the draft resolution and achieve a rare unity of purpose among the UN's vastly divergent 192 member nations remains to be seen. jreinl@thenational.ae

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