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UN Holds Interfaith Dialogue

The U.N. General Assembly began a special two-day session Wednesday, focused on the importance of promoting interfaith dialogue in order to strengthen world peace and stability. More than a dozen world leaders were scheduled to attend, including President Bush. The meeting has drawn some criticism because it was at the initiative of Saudi Arabia - a country that does not openly tolerate the practice of faiths other than orthodox Islam. From United Nation's headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

The president of the General Assembly and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the conference, saying the presence of more than a dozen world leaders and several other high ranking dignitaries testified to the importance of such a dialogue.

Mr. Ban said that interfaith dialogue is more important than ever, as the world sees some troubling trends.

"Communal strife is intensifying," said Ban Ki-moon. "Extremist ideologies are on the rise. Societies are more polarized. Anti-Semitism remains a scourge. Islamophobia has emerged as a new term for an old and terrible form of prejudice."

The president of the General Assembly called the meeting at the initiative of Saudi Arabia's King Abduallah bin Abdulaziz. It follows up on a conference on dialogue that the king sponsored in July in Madrid.

The king said terrorism and crime are the enemies of every religion and society. He said they only exist because of the absence of tolerance. But several human rights groups criticized King Abdullah, saying he must end religious intolerance and discrimination in his own country.

The session had a large turnout among Arab heads of state and government. Israel's President Shimon Peres also participated.

On Tuesday night, the secretary-general hosted a dinner which President Peres and King Abdullah, as well as several other Arab leaders attended. Among Arab nations, only Egypt and Jordan recognize Israel.

While there was no public display of acknowledgment in front of the cameras, it was the first time the Saudi king and Israeli president sat down together in the same room - albeit at different tables.

But during his remarks to the General Assembly on Wednesday, Mr. Peres diverted from his prepared text to directly address the Saudi King.

"Your Majesty the King of Saudi Arabia," said Shimon Peres. "I was listening to your message. I wish that your voice will become the prevailing voice of the whole region, of all people. It's right; it's needed; it's promising."

The Saudi King has promoted a Middle East peace plan in which Arab states would normalize relations with Israel, in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from all Arab territories seized in the 1967 war. Mr. Peres said that plan provides hope to the region.

Mr. Peres later told reporters that the Saudi king's initiative has "created a U-turn" in the policies of the Middle East and that there is a feeling that the time has come to have peace in the region.

The two-day conference has also provided an opportunity for several world leaders to hold private, bilateral meetings on a wide-range of issues.

On Thursday, President Bush will make what is likely his last appearance at the United Nations as U.S. President before he leaves office in January. He will also meet privately with the Saudi king.

Many of the leaders attending the U.N. meeting will then depart for Washington and the G-20 summit on the global financial crisis.