UNITED NATIONS // Iran's UN envoy yesterday said Israel had abused a Saudi-sponsored UN interfaith conference for political purposes and claimed the Jewish state had no right to take part. Speaking on the second day of the meeting, which earlier heard George W Bush call for worldwide religious freedom, Iran's UN ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, did not name Israel but his meaning was clear. "The representative of a regime (whose) short history is marked with ... aggression, occupation, assassination, state terrorism, and torture against the Palestinian people, under the pretext of a false interpretation of a divine religion, has tried to abuse this meeting for its narrow political purposes," he said.
Mr Khazaee was referring to the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, who took the rare opportunity of being in the same room as Saudi's King Abdullah yesterday to praise a Saudi peace initiative that he said had brought hope to the Middle East. Iran believes the Jewish state has no right to exist and opposes peace talks. Israel considers Iran an existential threat and, together with the United States and other countries, accuses it of developing nuclear weapons. Tehran denies the charge.
Mr Khazaee's speech stood out at the two-day meeting of the UN General Assembly, convened at the request of the Saudi monarch, not only because of its hostile language but because it failed to praise King Abdullah. Earlier, Mr Bush proclaimed religious freedom as the foundation of a healthy society and defended the US record in protecting Muslims caught up in foreign conflicts. The UN meeting, attended by leaders and diplomats from some 70 countries, was opened by King Abdullah, who on Wednesday denounced terrorism as the enemy of all religions.
Mr Bush, a devout Methodist who said faith had sustained him through his presidency, which ends in January, praised King Abdullah's initiative but also implicitly criticised countries that restrict religious practice. Saudi Arabia forbids public non-Muslim worship. Noting that the United States had been founded by people fleeing religious persecution, Mr Bush said that "Freedom is God's gift to every man, woman, and child and that freedom includes the right of all people to worship as they see fit."
He was speaking a short way from the site of New York's former World Trade Center, destroyed in 2001 by planes piloted by Islamist al Qa'eda militants. Some Muslim critics have called his subsequent "war on terror" a crusade against Islam. "Our nation has helped defend the religious liberty of others, from liberating the (World War Two) concentration camps of Europe to protecting Muslims in places like Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq," said Mr Bush.
"Religious freedom is the foundation of a healthy and hopeful society. We're not afraid to stand with religious dissidents and believers who practise their faith even where it is unwelcome." The German minister of state Hermann Groehe defended the right to convert to another faith a right not recognised in some Muslim countries and called it unacceptable some countries threatened those who want to convert with the death penalty.