World Leaders Meet for U.N. Religious Tolerance Talk

( [email protected] ) Nov 13, 2008 12:05 PM EST

Heads of state convened at the U.N. headquarters on Wednesday to begin talks on how to foster religious tolerance, but little headway was made because of underlying differences.

The conference was sponsored by Saudi Arabia and brought together representatives from 80 countries to overcome religious and cultural divisions. Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the conference made representatives and human rights groups question the amount of progress the gathering would yield.

Saudi Arabia is known to support the world’s strictest form of Islam, Wahhabism, and bans all other forms of public worship, including other branches of Islam. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has also reported on the Saudi government’s use of textbooks to indoctrinate children to hate “infidels,” or non-Muslims.

"Saudi Arabia is not qualified to be a leader in this dialogue at the United Nations," said Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi national who serves as director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, to The Washington Post. "It is the world headquarters of religious oppression and xenophobia."

Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, also made negative comments on Saudi Arabia’s qualification to lead the conference.

“There is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, yet the kingdom asks the world to listen to its message of religious intolerance,” Whitson said ahead of the conference to Agence France-Presse.

In addition to distrust of Saudi Arabia’s commitment to religious tolerance, other obstacles faced at the conference include anger over the Israeli-Arab conflict and frustration over Western economic and social policies.

These underlying tensions created divisions with leaders taking sides along Arab versus pro-Western lines.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II criticized Western policy, saying its “ignorance” has subjected Islam to “injustice.”

Meanwhile, Israeli President Shimon Peres made a swipe at nemesis Iran, saying “there are those in our region who sow hatred….those who seek to wipe out other people.”

U.N. General Assembly president, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, in his opening speech denounced Western morals and maintains that the world needs to learn the positive lessons of religion.

Religion promotes “social responsibility,” d’Escoto, a Catholic priest, said. But the world has “become contaminated by the spirit of selfishness and individualism.”

However, despite unresolved differences and tension, world leaders such as U.S. President George W. Bush and Israel’s Peres have welcomed Saudi King Abdullah’s call for the conference on religious tolerance.

In July, the Saudi King had hosted a high profile interfaith dialogue in Madrid that concluded with an international agreement to fight the root causes of terrorism. The two-day U.N. meeting this week is seen as a follow-up effort to his previous dialogue.

But given the split between countries and the added complications with mixing religion and politics, sources say there is no chance for a resolution and maybe not even a declaration at this conference, according to AFP.

A proposed Saudi text, for example, wanted to condemn the “mocking of religious symbols” that is highly offensive to Saudis and many Muslims. But European countries rejected the text because they see this as infringing on freedom of speech.

U.S. President George W. Bush is scheduled to speak on Thursday. He was represented Wednesday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.