Image: King Abdullah
Saudi Press Agency  /  AP file
In this image released by the Saudi Press Agency, Saudi King Abdullah talks with his ministerial cabinet in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Monday. The Saudi monarch on Tuesday called upon all faiths to begin a dialogue for world peace.
updated 3/25/2008 8:10:49 PM ET 2008-03-26T00:10:49

King Abdullah has made an impassioned plea for dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews — the first such proposal from ultraconservative Saudi Arabia, which has no ties to Israel and bans public non-Muslim religious services.

The message from the Saudi monarch, who met with Pope Benedict XVI in November, comes at a time of tensions among followers of the three religions. Muslims have been angered by cartoons published in European papers seen as insulting the Prophet Muhammad — and the pope's baptizing on Easter of a Muslim commentator who converted to Catholicism has also raised eyebrows.

"The idea is to ask representatives of all monotheistic religions to sit together with their brothers in faith and sincerity to all religions as we all believe in the same God," the king told delegates Monday night at a seminar on "Culture and the Respect of Religions."

Abdullah's call is significant and could add weight to sporadic efforts at dialogue among religious leaders in recent years. The Saudi monarch is the custodian of Islam's two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina, a position that lends his words special importance and influence among many Muslims. He said Saudi Arabia's top clerics have given him the green light to the idea — crucial backing in a society which expects decisions taken by its rulers to adhere to Islam's tenets.

For some, it also raised the possibility that a religious dialogue could have a political impact in the Middle East, easing tensions between Arabs and Israelis in a way that years of off-and-on negotiations and political conferences have failed to do.

Can religion be part of a solution?
"Religion is all too often the problem, so it has to also be the solution, or at least part of the solution and I think that the tragedy of the political initiatives to bring peace has been the failure to include the religious dimension," Rabbi David Rosen, head of inter-religious relations at the American Jewish Committee and former chief rabbi of Ireland, said, adding that he was "delighted" by Abdullah's call.

Abdullah framed his appeal in strictly religious and ethical terms, aimed at addressing the weakening of the family, increasing atheism and "a lack of ethics, loyalty, and sincerity for our religions and humanity."

A Saudi official with knowledge of the proposal said it was not intended to have a political angle, saying "the initiative is not aimed at the Middle East but at the whole world. It's a global initiative." The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the proposal.

But Abdullah, considered a reformer in Saudi politics, has in the past proposed peace deals with Israel, saying his country and other Arab nations are willing to recognize Israel as long as it gives up land to Palestinians.

The specifics of the initiative — particularly who would participate in the dialogue — remained unclear. Abdullah said he planned to hold conferences to get the opinion of Muslims from other parts of the world, "our brothers" in Christianity and Judaism "so we can agree on something that guarantees the preservation of humanity against those who tamper with ethics, family systems and honesty."

Abdullah said that if such an agreement is reached, he plans to take his proposal to the United Nations.

In particular, it was unclear whether Israeli Jewish figures would be invited to a Saudi-brokered dialogue. The kingdom and all other Arab nations except Egypt and Jordan do not have diplomatic relations with Israel and generally shun unofficial contacts.

Open to the call 
In Israel, Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger welcomed Abdullah's call.

"Our hand is outstretched to any peace initiative and any dialogue that is aimed at bringing an end to terror and violence," he said in a statement.

Lawrence Schiffman, chairman of New York University's Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, said it's premature to predict how the Jewish community would react to a dialogue that excluded Israelis.

"My cautionary note would be, 'Let's see what he really means,'" Schiffman said. "We need more details. We don't want to be in a situation of negating an honest opening, if that's what it is."

Prominent Saudi cleric, Sheik Muhammad al-Nujaimi, said he saw no reason why any Saudi official, including Abdullah, cannot meet with Jewish religious leaders. "The only condition is for the rabbi not to be supportive of the massacres against the Palestinian people," he said.

Abdullah's contacts with Benedict are also significant. In his speech, he said he discussed the dialogue proposal with the pontiff at their Vatican meeting.

Benedict angered many Muslims with a 2006 speech in which he cited a medieval text that described some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly the command to spread the faith "by the sword." He later expressed regret that his remarks angered Muslims and stressed that the text didn't reflect his own opinion.

In an audiotape released last week, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden accused Benedict of playing a "large and lengthy role" in what he called a "new Crusade" against Islam. Bin Laden also warned of a "severe" reaction for Europe's publication of the Muhammad cartoons.

Saudi Arabia follows a severe interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism. It was not clear whether Abdullah's call will be followed by steps in the kingdom to relax the ban on public, non-Muslim worship as well as symbols from other religions, such as crosses and Bibles.

Muhammad al-Zulfa, a member of the Saudi Consultative Council said Abdullah's conciliatory was "a message to all extremists: Stop using religion."

Abdullah's framing of the dialogue in ethical terms may aim to reassure hard-line Muslim clerics that it would not involve any concessions.

Wariness among Muslim clerics
But some were already wary. Marwan Abu Ras, a lawmaker with the Palestinian Hamas militant group and chairman of the Palestinian Religious Scholars' Association, said the call for dialogue is advocated by Islam.

But, he said, "we are at a stage of obvious animosity with the Jews in Israel who usurp our lands and kill our children. Can I put forward clear points for a dialogue with them while they kill our sons, and their rabbis sanction killing our children? This is unimaginable under any circumstance."

Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said a Saudi-backed dialogue between Muslims and Jews "could be a balancing factor" against extremists but cannot replace diplomacy.

"I think that negotiations need to be negotiations and you don't mix religion into a diplomatic conflict, because then there is a danger of turning it into a religious war," he said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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