A Saudi-sponsored conference that will bring together Israeli and US rabbis with clerics from the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam — as well as global religious leaders of nearly every persuasion — is either a rare opportunity for dialogue or a cynical publicity stunt.
It all depends on who you ask.
And like any confab that includes Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and representatives of several other religions — there is no shortage of opinion.
The conference that opened in Madrid yesterday is the brainchild of Saudi King Abdullah, who has cast it as a way to ease tensions between Islam, Christianity and Judaism — part of an effort to reposition oil-rich Saudi Arabia as a force for moderation in the region.
“To have a dialogue, just to start talking to each other, is an accomplishment in itself,” said Saudi Ambassador to Spain Saud Bin Naif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. “At this point in time the whole world needs to start talking to each other. This is what we hope we can achieve.”
Saudi Arabia has presented the conference as a strictly religious initiative. But it also has political implications, coming from a country that does not have diplomatic ties with Israel.
Abdullah has made headlines recently by reaching out to leaders of other faiths. In November, he met with Pope Benedict XVI, the first meeting ever between a pope and a reigning Saudi king.
At a gathering of Muslim scholars and clerics in Mecca last month, Abdullah said that Muslims must turn away from the dangers of extremism and present Islam’s “good message” to the world.
His efforts have generally been welcomed in Israel and by the Jewish community, as well as in the Arab world.
“The conference provides a rare opportunity for strengthening mutual respect between the followers of the three main religions,” said Monsignor Nabil Haddad, head of the Melkite Catholic community in Jordan and a participant at the conference.
Still, detractors say the Saudis are the last people who should be hosting a conference on religious tolerance. Wahhabism — the strain of Sunni Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia — is considered one of the religion’s most conservative and Saudi Arabia has sometimes strained ties with Islam’s other major branch, Shiism. Only one delegate from predominantly Shiite Iran was invited, and it was not clear whether he would attend.
Observers say the conference is being held in Spain in part because it would be politically unpalatable for Abdullah — the titular guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites — to allow Jewish and Christian leaders into the kingdom itself, a difficult starting point for religious harmony.
One of the conference’s biggest names is David Rosen, a prominent Israeli rabbi. The inclusion of an Israeli in a Saudi-sponsored gathering is big news, but Rosen is not listed as being from the Jewish state in the conference literature. He has dual citizenship, and is described as an American.
“Practically speaking, he is being invited as a foreigner and not as an Israeli,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said in dismissing the conference. “If they really wanted to make this significant, they should have invited real Israeli rabbis.”
Others in the Jewish state were even harsher. Mina Fenton, a spokeswoman at Jerusalem City Hall and member of Israel’s hawkish National Religious Party, said she doubted the Saudis’ motives.