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U.N. Conference on Interfaith Dialogue Promotes Culture of Peace

World leaders, senior diplomats, and religious leaders condemned extremism and terrorism at a November U.N. conference on interfaith dialogue that brought Israel and Arab countries together to promote tolerance and a culture of peace.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia initiated the U.N. conference on interfaith dialogue that brought together more than a dozen world leaders, including the Presidents of the United States, Pakistan, Israel, and the British Prime Minister.

A Pakistani Perspective

Anthropologist and journalist Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani ambassador to Great Britain, says such interfaith meetings need to take place not only at the level of heads of state but also among religious leaders at the community level. It is only then, he says, that we will overcome widespread ignorance and prejudice about other religions and move toward increased tolerance. Ahmed, who now serves as the Ibn Khaldoun Chair of Islamic Studies at The American University in Washington, made his comments in an interview with Judith Latham, host of VOA’s International Press Club. Ahmed says it is extremely important for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to be involved in such meetings because hundreds of millions of Muslims take their cue from him. For them, he says, it signals that it is “okay to have dialogue with their neighbors” and with people from the Jewish and Christian traditions.

An Israeli Perspective

The Israelis viewed the UN conference as more of a political than religious gathering, according to Nathan Guttman, Washington correspondent for the Jewish Daily Forward. And when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosted a dinner attended by Saudi King Abdullah and Israeli President Shimon Peres, the two leaders sitting in the same room was seen by Israel as significant. Guttman says, if the citizens of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, Israel, and the Christian world see their leaders sitting together and talking, it would send a message of dialogue – even if no agreement had been reached and no paper actually signed. When President Peres publicly praised the Arab League peace plan for the Middle East, which is in fact the Saudi peace plan, Guttman says the statement signaled something new...“a kind of openness.”

A German Perspective

German journalist Matthias Rueb of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who is also author of the recent book, “God Reigns over America,” says most Europeans do not attach the same significance to such symbolism. Rueb notes that the only major political figure from Europe attending the U.N. gathering was British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In Europe, he says, most people believe that the more modern a society is, the less important religion becomes. In America, he says, this is not true. And according to Rueb, there is no Western, industrialized society where religion plays a larger role than it does in the United States.

Matthias Rueb says it was notable that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who opened the interfaith dialogue, has been willing to listen to other voices, such as that of President George Bush, who told the U.N. gathering that every person has the right to choose or change religion and the right to worship in private or public. But listening to such statements and believing in them is quite a different matter for the Saudi King. In Saudi Arabia, non-Muslims are not permitted to worship in public. And while dialogue does not imply conversion to another religion’s tenets, Rueb says the interfaith conference in New York represents a small step toward tolerance and understanding.

Common Concerns

Professor Akbar Ahmed of the American University says that religious and political leaders are now confronting the same major challenges – global warming, global poverty, and religious violence. And he says these issues need to be addressed by both heads of government and spiritual leaders. Professor Ahmed says he sees a growing hope around the world for dialogue and a “new kind of American leadership.

Last week, religious leaders and ordinary people from the world’s major faiths gathered at Washington’s National Cathedral for a celebration in sacred song, dance, and chant. The event, sponsored by the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, also honored Professor Ahmed and his family’s dedication to the promotion of religious dialogue. He explains his involvement as a form of diplomacy. He says there have been “great bridges” between different cultures and civilizations in recent years, and he urges people of faith to reach out to one another by inviting them to their homes or houses of worship, thereby creating friendships in what has become a very troubled world.