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UN General Assembly Concludes Interfaith Dialogue


The U.N. General Assembly concluded a two-day conference on interfaith dialogue with a call for member states to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all - including religious beliefs. In a statement, the participants also affirmed their rejection of the use of religion to justify murder and terrorism. From United Nation's headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the conference, initiated by Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz comes at a time when the need for dialogue among peoples has never been greater.

"It has brought together people who might not otherwise have a chance to interact," said Ban Ki-moon. "Along with other initiatives, it will contribute to building a more harmonious world."

Among those it brought together were the Saudi king and Israeli President Shimon Peres, who although they did not directly speak with one another, did for the first time, have dinner in the same room.

At a joint news conference with the secretary-general, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the important element about the conference is that it did not concentrate on theology or doctrine, but on ethics and values which all faiths share.

The two-day session was a follow up to a similar Saudi-sponsored initiative held in Madrid in July.

But Saudi Arabia - the birthplace of Islam - does not allow the public practice of faiths other than its own strict interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. Human rights groups and others have criticized the Saudis for sponsoring a conference at the United Nations urging tolerance when it discriminates at home.

When asked whether his country would now become more tolerant of other faiths, the foreign minister was cautious in his reply.

"If you bring people together so that they understand that they have the same ethics, they have the same values, this will open the hearts and minds of people for further progress," said Prince Saud al-Faisal. "But to say from the beginning, you have to transform yourself into something which you are not now or nothing else can be achieved, is, I think carrying the argument too far."

Earlier Thursday, President Bush, in what is likely his final appearance at the United Nations before he leaves office in January, told the General Assembly that religious freedom is one of the common defining features of democratic governments.

"People who are free to express their opinions can challenge the ideologies of hate," said President Bush. "They can defend their religious beliefs and speak out against those seeking to twist them to evil ends. They can prevent their children from falling under the sway of extremists by giving them a more hopeful alternative."

Mr. Bush praised King Abdullah for initiating the interfaith dialogue, but also indirectly challenged his government's intolerance of other faiths. Quoting from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he said "everyone has the right to choose or change religions, and the right to worship in private or in public."

The conference drew more than a dozen world leaders, as well as more than sixty other ministers and dignitaries. Among those that addressed the conference Thursday were British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

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