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". email@example.com