Conference of the World Religions in Madrid

Appeal against Terrorism and Violence

On the weekend a three-day dialogue with an appeal against terrorism and violence. The conference was organized by the "Muslim World League" on behalf of the Saudi king Abdullah. Peter Philipp reports

Conference of the World Religions (photo: AP)
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, left, shakes hands with a catholic bishop. He exhorted followers of the world's leading faiths to turn away from extremism and embrace a spirit of reconciliation

​​Over 200 participants from around the world, including Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and representatives of other religious communities concluded by demanding united international efforts against terrorism and rejecting theories of a "clash of the cultures". Instead, they propose fostering human values and encouraging their dissemination in different societies.

On a basis of tolerance and mutual understanding the participants intend to carry on the dialogue initiated in Madrid and develop it as a framework for international relations. They plan to conduct further conferences of this kind, as well as seminars, symposia and cultural, educational and media projects.

A noble idea

The fact that the initiative for a conference of this kind came from conservative Saudi Arabia provoked incredulous astonishment in some quarters. But Saleh Al Namlah, Deputy Minister for Culture and Information, sees no contradiction:

"We should not abandon the arena to the extremists anywhere. We want them to become marginalized. Religion and philosophy have common values, a common basis – for people in general, for property, for women, men and the family. We need that. And we believe that if there is to be peace among the religions, a dialogue must be started to bring about this peace."

Al Namlah also has an explanation for why religion is suddenly seen as a cure for radicalism after long being regarded as its origin:

"It is a good idea, and noble as well. King Abdullah is a very noble person. He has no ulterior motives, he is simply a very good person. He wants to give people the best he can."

religion as a source of guidance

King Abdullah visits Pope Benedict XVI (photo: AP)
Pope Benedict XVI meets with Abdullah at the Vatican, November 2007. The monarch of Saudi Arabia, which has been pressed by the Vatican to allow freedom of worship for Christians

​​What may sound a bit like propaganda coming from a minister is confirmed by someone whose presence at the conference attracted a great deal of attention: David Rosen, an American-Israeli rabbi (and the only Israeli participant) sees the conference as a historic event:

"It is historic when it includes the relevant communities. That is why the fact that it comes from the Saudi king and the Muslim World League is very significant. But in the end the significance depends on whether there will be continuity and development after this meeting."

Rosen also sees religion as assuming an important role, relevant to many everyday issues as well as people who do not regard themselves as religious:

"Religion has a great deal to say about our current challenges. And even people who are not religious look to religion as a source of guidance. Today we are confronted with challenges that could put an end to our planet: global warming and the issue of ecological responsibility, genetic technology, scientific progress, the question of poverty and the distribution of resources. We must hear the voices of religious wisdom and tradition on these issues."

Public relations for the Saudi kingdom

Of course, at the conference Saudi-Arabia was also concerned with improving the negative image which has plagued it – especially since September 11, due to the fact that most of the terrorists came from Saudi-Arabia. But King Abdullah has made further efforts for understanding, among other things by meeting with the Pope and recently by attempting to bridge the gulf between Sunnis and Shiites with a conference in Mecca.

There were few participants from Germany. Bishop Huber and Hans Küng were unable to attend, but the "Central Council of Muslims in Germany" was represented. Its chair, Ayyub Axel Koehler, warned against exaggerated expectations: the important thing was the encounter between the different religious representatives, most of whom did not even know each other. Koehler sees little point in first focusing the dialogue on Europe and discussing "Euro-Islam", arguing that once again this amounts to a discussion of Islam, when the actual goal is in fact a different one:

"First and foremost, it is about avoiding conflicts. And not about trying to lecture to the others or to change or even reform them. Here the first issue is mutual understanding. And the most important thing is: it is about peace. And the religions can make an important contribution to that in their way. At the same time, I tacitly deny that religions are always the reason for war."

Peter Philipp

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2008

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