King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which is the home of Islam’s most holy shrines and adheres to a hardline Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, has for the first time announced plans to launch a dialogue between Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
“I want to call for conferences between the religions to protect humanity from folly,” he told a forum in Riyadh. He referred to his ground breaking talks in Rome last November with Pope Benedict XVI, saying “I wanted to visit the Vatican and I did, and I thank him. He met me in a meeting I will not forget, a meeting of one human being with another. I suggested this idea”.
“If God wills it, we will then meet with our brothers from other religions, including those of the Torah and the Gospel to come up with ways to safeguard humanity,” he added. The king, who is the guardian of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, said the major faiths shared a desire to combat “the disintegration of the family and the rise of atheism in the world”.
According to the official Saudi Press Agency King Abdullah said “I have noticed that the family system has weakened and that atheism has increased. That is an unacceptable behavior to all religions, to the Koran, the Torah and the Bible. We ask God to save humanity. There is a lack of ethics, loyalty and sincerity for our religions and humanity.”
He said he had secured support of Saudi clerics, but did not name them. The Saudi king’s move came as members of a new Catholic Muslim Forum set up by the Vatican and Islamic leaders deplored Pope Benedict’s Easter baptism of an Egyptian-born Italian Muslim as “provocative and triumphalist.”
Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman and a leading figure in a group of 138 Muslim scholars who helped to launch the Forum, called on the Pope to distance himself from an attack on Islam by Magdi Allam in Corriere della Sera, of which he is a deputy editor, describing it as an inherently violent faith which encouraged hate and intolerance.
The Forum, which is to hold its first meeting in Rome in November, arose in the aftermath of the Popes remarks at Regensburg University in Germany in 2006 in which appeared to characterise Islam as evil, inhumane and irrational. After the Pope made clear he had been misunderstood 138 Muslim scholars – whose numbers have since risen to over 200 – then wrote an open letter to him entitled “The Common Word” offering a dialogue.
Nayed, head of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, said other Muslim members of the new Forum agreed with him, but stopped short of suggesting that the new Catholic-Muslim dialogue had been derailed by the baptism. He said Allam’s conversion was his personal decision and had no doubt been influenced by the journalist’s 35 year stay in Italy and his earlier education at a Salesian Catholic school in Egypt.
But he found it “sad that the particular person chosen for such a highly public gesture has a history of generating, and continues to generate, hateful discourse.” Arab newspapers also deplored the baptism, with the Saudi daily al-Watan described Allam as a pro Israeli writer who had “worked tirelessly to attack Islam”.
Several Arab papers said the conversion would not have attracted such attention if it had been less high profile. Nayed said the Pope’s involvement made it look as if the Vatican was “scoring points”, provoking “genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the Pope’s advisers on Islam”.
He added: “But we will not let this unfortunate episode distract us from our work on pursuing ‘A Common Word’ for the sake of humanity and world peace. Our basis for dialogue is not a tit-for-tat logic of reciprocity.”
L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said the baptism of Allam did not imply any hostility toward Islam, since “religious freedom includes the freedom to change one’s religion”.
Allam, who has been an Italian citizen since 1986, says he has never been a practising Muslim. He said about his most recent book is “Viva Israel”, “I discovered that at the origin of the ideology of hatred, violence and death is discrimination against Israel.” His previous books include “Kamikaze made in Europe: Will the West defeat Islamic terrorists?”.
In Corriere della Sera on Sunday he said he had concluded that “beyond the phenomenon of the extremists and of Islamic terrorism on a worldwide level, the root of the evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictual.” His conversion had freed him from a faith marked by “hate and intolerance toward he who is different, toward he who is condemned as an enemy”.
In television interviews he said he was aware that death threats against him, which have forced him to have police protection since 2003, could now increase. But he said Pope Benedict “wanted to give a signal to the Church throughout the world” that whoever wanted to join it would be accepted.
Allam recently attacked Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, over his remarks on the application of Sharia law in the United Kingdom. “This is the degenerate product of the multicultural ideology” he said. “These declarations are the proof that an insidious process, the Islamisation of European society, is already well under way”.
King Abdullah’s announcement follows reports that the Vatican is holding exploratory talks with Riyadh aimed at obtaining permission to build the first church in Saudi Arabia, following the inauguration of Qatar’s first Christian church. Only Islam is permitted in Saudi Arabia, but the number of Catholic foreign workers resident in the country has risen to nearly a million.