MADRID — With an appeal for “constructive dialogue” and search for common ground, an groundbreaking Saudi-sponsored interfaith conference kicked off on Wednesday, July 16, in Spain, bringing together followers of the world’s leading faiths.
“We all believe in one God… We are meeting here today to say that religions should be a means to iron out differences and not to lead to disputes,” Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz said in the opening speech of the World Conference on Dialogue, reported Agence France Presse (AFP).
The three-day conference is organized by the Muslim World League upon an initiative by King Abdullah.
Around 200 Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars and other experts on inter-religious dialogue are attending the meeting.
Among the attendants are the secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, Michael Schneider, and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who is responsible for dialogue between the Vatican and Muslims.
In his speech, King Abdullah said the meeting comes to shore up a “constructive dialogue” between the world religions.
Spanish King Juan Carlos also addressed the gathering at a ceremonial palace on the outskirts of Madrid, saying he hoped the meeting would be a step forward in interfaith engagement.
“We have always been interested in strengthening peace, dialogue and cooperation on the international stage,” he said.
After Wednesday’s inaugural session, four closed-door round tables will be held before a final communiqué on Friday.
Discussions will touch upon a number of hot issues including restrictions on hijab-wearing in some European countries to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) lampooning cartoons and the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The interfaith conference is seen as an unprecedented move by the Muslim kingdom.
The Saudi king launched the dialogue plan after meeting Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican last November, in the first visit by a Saudi monarch to the Vatican.
Last month, King Abdullah sponsored a conference brought together 600 Muslim scholars and academics to discuss different aspects of inter-faith dialogue.
King Abdullah urged participants to focus on what is common between the different faiths to help the dialogue succeed.
“Most of the dialogue (between religions) has ended in failure,” Abdullah said.
“To succeed we must emphasize the common link between us which a belief in God.”
Abdullah also stressed leaders from all religions need to emphasize that “tragedies that have occurred in history” is not due to the differences between religion rather than the wrong and misleading interpretations of a few.
“Differences do not lead to conflict and confrontation.”
President of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, expressed a similar view.
“It is the duty of religious leaders to work together to restore respect for ethical values and to avoid a ‘clash of civilizations,’” he said in a statement ahead of the event.
Prominent Muslim scholars and interfaith experts issued in February an open letter for the world’s Jewish community calling for a dialogue to improve relations between Jews and Muslims who have common ground of shared beliefs.
Last October, at least 138 Muslim scholars and dignitaries from 43 countries addressed an open letter to the world’s Christian clergy, including Pope Benedict XVI.
The letter, A Common Word Between Us and You, called for dialogue to declare the common ground between the two religions.
The conference in Madrid came as the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams issued a response to Muslim scholars’ letter.
“We interpret your invitation as saying ‘let us find a way of recognizing that on some matters we are speaking enough of a common language for us to be able to pursue both exploratory dialogue and peaceful co-operation,” Williams said in his 17-page letter, A Common Word for the Common Good.
“It is a timely initiative given the growing awareness that peace throughout the world is deeply entwined with the ability of all people of faith everywhere to live together in peace, justice, mutual respect and love.”