King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia said Wednesday at the start of an interfaith conference that religion should not be blamed for history’s conflict, but rather extremism.
"My brothers, we must tell the world that differences don't need to lead to disputes," Abdullah said through a Spanish interpreter, according to The Associated Press. "The tragedies we have experienced throughout history were not the fault of religion but because of the extremism that has been adopted by some followers of all the religions, and of all political systems."
Saudi Arabia is the host of an interfaith gathering, which is being held July 16-18 in Madrid, Spain. Some find it interesting that Saudi Arabia is the host because the country practices arguably the most conservative strain of Sunni Islam in the world – Wahhabism.
This year, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended again that the State Department designate Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern – the worst religious freedom violation category – for its egregious and systematic violation of religious freedom.
It is thought that because of Saudi Arabia’s conservative Muslim culture, the interfaith conference could not be held there with the potential tension it might cause.
But Abdullah himself, who took over the kingdom after the death of his half brother in 2005, has made remarkable efforts to reach out to other faiths. He met with Pope Benedict XVI late last year – the first time a pope and a reigning Saudi king has met.
And in June, Abdullah convened a religious conference in Mecca where participants vowed to improve relations between Islam’s two major branches, Sunni and Shia. Abdullah, at the meeting, had denounced extremism, and said Muslims must show Islam’s “good message” to the world.
Besides Christians and Jews, the interfaith gathering also includes Buddhist and Hindu participants.
Prominent religious and political leaders attending the event include evangelist Franklin Graham, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, former Vice President Al Gore, American civil rights leader and ex-presidential candidate the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Rabbi David Rosen.
The conference is said to possibly be the highest profile interfaith meeting in recorded history.
The Saudis have said the event will strictly focus on religious affairs, even though religious differences have often led to political violence in many parts of the world.
Participants will not talk about divisive issues such as the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iranian nuclear aspirations, or rising oil prices, according to AP.
Other than the inaugural session, the conference is closed to the public and the media.
Spanish King Juan Carlos also greeted the interfaith gathering on Wednesday. He said he hopes the conference will be successful.