Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
Abdullah al Turki, the secretary general of the Muslim World League, noted that Barack Obama singled out King Abdullah for undertaking his interfaith initiative.
Dani Pozo STR
Abdullah al Turki, the secretary general of the Muslim World League, noted that Barack Obama singled out King Abdullah for undertaking his interfaith initiative.

Muslim leader quick to praise US president

The Muslim World League's secretary general says he appreciates Obama's enthusiasm for dialogue among people of different faiths.

GENEVA // Underscoring the widening reach of interfaith dialogue, a senior Saudi official praised the US president Barack Obama yesterday for infusing discussions among the faithful of various religions with new vigour. On the opening day of a two-day interfaith conference in this lakeside city, Abdullah al Turki, the secretary general of the Mecca-based Muslim World League, said the US leader had "contributed in creating an atmosphere of more understanding between the followers of religions and cultures through bridges of dialogue".

The tribute to Mr Obama appeared to be a reciprocal gesture, for in his prepared remarks, Mr al Turki noted that the US leader, in his June speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, had singled out Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for undertaking his interfaith initiative. Although he was the focus of many of the opening remarks by Saudi, Swiss and church officials, the 86-year-old Saudi monarch - more commonly referred to as "the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" - did not attend the conference.

Alongside the frequent odes to the importance of religious harmony and understanding, there was controversy. At least one Jewish participant walked out of the hotel conference hall to express his dismay at a recent Muslim World League publication that, according to some Jewish participants in the conference, propagated an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about Jewish control of the media. The protester also objected to the presence at the conference of an American who has been described by one Jewish rights group as a "known anti-Semite".

Ramatullah Turkistan, a Muslim World League official, said no such protest had occurred. The conference, notably taking place in the heart of Protestant Christian Europe, is the fourth such meeting sponsored by Saudi Arabia and comes a week after King Abdullah dedicated a sprawling, state-of-the-art university for science and technology in the desert 80km from Jeddah. Citing both events, Dr Bandar bin Mohammed, the chairman of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, told some 150 clergy, academics and representatives of non-government organisations that education and interfaith dialogue are the 86-year-old monarch's intended legacies.

"He seeks love and co-operation among people - and a future based on education. It is his gift to the world," Dr Bandar said. In her brief unprepared remarks, Navanethem Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, brought some grit to the discussion. She urged participants, who represent not only the three Abrahamic faiths but also Hinduism, Buddhism and other so-called "eastern religions", to address the problem of discrimination "in all its forms".

Then, breaking with precedent by raising a provocative subject, Ms Pillay referred to efforts to combat religious justifications for female genital mutilation. Some who practised it believed it was a sin not to undergo the procedure, and we said it was a sin to do it, she said. The dispute over the allegedly anti-Semitic statements by the World Muslim League has been simmering for weeks, stirred primarily by the US-based Jewish rights group, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

The group has focused particular attention on William Baker, the president of Christians and Muslims for Peace, whom it has described as an anti-Semite. The weight brought to bear on Jewish attendees by others in the Jewish community appears to have been significant. Rabbi Steven Jacobs, the founder of the Progressive Faith Foundation who is attending the conference, said the ADL phoned him before he departed for Geneva. "They weren't putting pressure on me not to come, but they were obviously upset." Mr Jacob said as he defended his decision to attend the conference.

"The reason I'm here is to talk to people with whom I might disagree. They are not my enemies. They are potential friends along the road to better understanding. That's what President Obama has called for," he said. For his part, Mr Baker denied ever calling for "the destruction of Israel" and described his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as hewing to US policy. Other observers chided conference organisers for promoting good feeling at the expense of tackling pressing issues. In his prepared remarks, Dr Bandar made no reference to some of the human rights issues facing the faithful of various religions and sects in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the Arab Middle East.

For interfaith dialogue to progress, these issues must be addressed, said Deborah Manning, the senior legal officer at Alkarama, a non-governmental organisation devoted to the promotion and protection of human rights, especially in the Arab World. "For meaningful dialogue on human values and fundamental freedoms to occur, it's important that there be an acknowledgement and deep understanding of the suffering that is occurring. For that to happen, all voices must be heard," Ms Manning said.

Previous interfaith conferences sponsored by Saudi Arabia were held in Mecca in June 2008 and in Madrid a month later. A third occurred in Vienna last month. "The current conference is being held under the title, "The initiative of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques for Inter-Religious Dialogue and Its Impact in Disseminating Human Values". cnelston@thenational.ae

Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 Fatema holds a picture of her son Nurul Karim as she poses for a photograph in front of her slum house in Savar. Fatema lost her son Nurul Karim and her daughter Arifa, who were working on the fifth floor of Rana Plaza when it collapsed on April 24, 2013. All photos Andrew Biraj / Reuters

These women know the real price of cheap high street fashion

Survivors of the world's worst garment factory accident, struggle to rebuild their lives from the rubble of the Rana Plaza collapse as Bangladesh prepares to mark the first anniversary of the disaster.

 Supporters of unseen India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate and Chief Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, wave as he arrives to file his election nomination papers in Varanasi. Sanjay Kanojia / AFP Photo

Best photography from around the world April 24

The National View's photo editors pick the best of the day from around the world

 Iranian workers at the Iran Khodro auto plant in Tehran on March 18. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

Iran’s love of cars survives devastating sanctions

Sanctions and energy subsidy reductions might have hurt the Iranian automotive industry. But car makers at one factory are still optimistic, Yeganeh Salehi reports from Tehran

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greeted by university students as he leaves Sistan University in Sistan and Baluchestan’s provincial capital of Zahedan on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

In Iran’s most troubled province, Rouhani hears pleas for change

Hassan Rounani aims to connect with residents of far-flung Sistan and Baluchestan province.

 Prince Bandar bin Sultan in Riyadh on March 3, 2007. Hassan Ammar / AFP Photo

Saudi Prince Bandar promised a victory he could not deliver

Saudi Arabia's controversial intelligence chief stepped down this week after rumours that his policies on Syria had fallen out of favour.

 Aiza Tonida puts out laundry amid the ruins of her parents home in Leyte province that was destroyed when Typhoon Haiyan struck central Philippines on November 8, 2013. Joey Reyna for The National

Filipinos seek Middle East jobs to rebuild lives after Haiyan

Work in the GCC seen as only hope for thousands left homeless and jobless after devastating storm in November.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National