Saudi Arabia?s King Abdullah opened an interfaith conference in Madrid last week, calling on the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish attendees to join him in an unprecedented effort at reconciliation, while rejecting the forces of religious fanaticism. In June, King Abdullah hosted a similar meeting of Muslim scholars in Mecca.The message was much the same. He asked the leaders of Islam?s two major denominations ? Sunni and Shi?a ? to find commonality not only with each other, but with Christians and Jews as well. The Saudi monarch has an ambitious plan: intra-faith and interfaith understanding.

The Muslim World League organized the Madrid meeting. Its head, Abdullah al-Turki, said he wanted to show what he called Saudi Arabia?s ?openness.? However, Saudi Arabia itself is not open to the idea of religious tolerance and forbids the practice of any religion other than Islam. On this week?s VOA radio broadcast of International Press Club with host Judith Latham, Pakistani journalist Akbar Ahmed says, if King Abdullah can succeed at moving the Islamic world toward genuine interfaith dialogue, there will be an ?impact in Arab society itself.?

The three-day Madrid meeting included not only members of the three so-called ?Abrahamic? faiths ? Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - but also representatives of Buddhism and Hinduism. Because half the world consists of those who practice religions that do not trace their spiritual descent from Abraham, Akbar Ahmed says, they need to be reached out to as well. Mr. Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldoun chair of the department of Islamic Studies at The American University in Washington, DC, and a former Pakistani ambassador to Great Britain. He says King Abdullah must be applauded for his effort in ?changing the ground rules.?

But not everyone is applauding. Journalist Borja Bergareche covered the Madrid Conference for ABC, a leading Spanish newspaper. He says by hosting the conference, the King of Spain became involved in ?some sort of private deal? with the Saudi monarch that actually embarrassed the Spanish government ? a government that supports the separation of religion and state. But Mr. Bergareche acknowledges holding the meeting in Spain did produce a lot of ?historical symbolism.? Spain has a rich history of cultural interchange between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, beginning in the mid-8th century to the end of the 15th century.
He says it is ?amazing? to observe how this historical view of al-Andalus (the name given the Iberian Peninsula by the ruling Muslims of that period) is still celebrated in contemporary Muslim societies.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, attended the Madrid conference along with his wife, Rabbi Phyllis Berman. She is the founder of the Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah ? an organization that focuses on mutual concerns of the Abrahamic faiths. Rabbi Waskow says King Abdullah created some extraordinary opportunities in calling the Madrid conference. He says especially important were the small group gatherings apart from the formal meetings. He says the simple opportunity to share meals with those across religious and national lines opened new dialogues. For example, Rabbi Waskow says, he and his wife chatted with people from Saudi Arabia who had never before met someone who was committed not only to Israel?s ?protection and vitality? but also outraged at the thought of Israel?s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Both views, Rabbi Waskow insists, represent Judaism?s ?deep commitment to justice and peace.? And Rabbi Waskow says such discussions gave him and his wife the opportunity to listen to what their Saudi friends had to offer. He described the exchange as the ?first stage of an earthquake,? the result of which could bring positive shifts in religious tolerance.

Those shifts, even as this interfaith conference demonstrated, may take some time. Rabbi Waskow noted the conference planners had invited 25 speakers, not one of whom was a woman. Realizing their oversight failed to demonstrate the theme of inclusiveness, they added a Muslim woman from Madrid at the last minute. Interestingly enough, she was the author of a historical study on the importance of involving women in inter-religious dialogue.
There were other problems, too. Rabbi Waskow says the formal presentations tended toward ?serial monologues,? not the open discussion of ideas that was advertised. That, he says, is why the informal gatherings on the sidelines of the conference played such a critical role.

The World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid concluded in agreement with King Abdullah?s opening premise that religion should be a means to iron out differences, not a cause for disputes. But the legacy of the conference will depend partly on what happens next and on further steps, if any, that the Saudi monarch can take. Cynics say he must start by opening his own nation to the concept of religious tolerance. Some participants at Madrid hope for a special session on the subject at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September. Others say they want something more, perhaps even an council on interfaith dialogue created as a formal U.N. body.