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Saudi Host Renounces Extremism At Spain Summit


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.



And I'm Steve Inskeep. A speech at a religious conference captured attention less for what was said than for who said it. The speech came from the king of Saudi Arabia. His country invited representatives of the world's major faiths to a conference. Christians, Jews, Muslims and others came to the meeting in Spain, and in that setting, Saudi king urged a rejection of extremism. Jerome Socolovsky has the story.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: Clerics, theologians and scholars gathered in the colonnaded atrium of El Pardo Palace. There were Hindus wearing white turbans, imams in flowing kaftans, rabbis with black yarmulkes and a Buddhist monk in a saffron silk robe. They listened respectfully as the Saudi King Abdullah gave the opening speech through an interpreter.

King ABDULLAH (Saudi Arabia): (Through translator) I talk to you from the place dearest to the heart of all Muslims, the land of the two holy mosques, bearing with me a message from the Islamic world.

SOCOLOVSKY: The message was unlike any before, from the custodian of Islam's holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina. The world's religions should not fight, the king said, but unite to face common problems. He proffered a list: terrorism, racism, the proliferation of crime, youth drug abuse, the breakdown of the family.

King ABDULLAH: (Through translator) All this is consequence of the spiritual void that people suffer once they forget God.


SOCOLOVSKY: Critics say the conference should have been held in Saudi Arabia, because religious freedom is restricted there. They say the meeting is only meant to make Saudi Arabia look good in the West. In fact, Western countries are disproportionately represented.

British-born Rabbi David Rosen was the only Israeli invited to attend, and he was listed as an American.

Rabbi DAVID ROSEN: Of course, I lament it greatly, and I think that if there's to be a serious engagement with the Jewish people, then it has to involve Israeli religious leadership substantially and centrally.

SOCOLOVSKY: But there were also no Palestinians on the list, and Rosen says the meeting should be seen as a first step towards interfaith dialogue by the Saudis.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, participant, agrees.

Mr. TONY BLAIR (Former Prime Minister, Great Britain): The king as a reformer, in Saudi terms. He wants to change things in his country, but he's got to proceed with care because he's got his own culture and his own society to be concerned about. And there are all sorts of issues that will arise in the future.

SOCOLOVSKY: The participants are holding three days of meetings, but already, many welcome a new ecumenical front against the godlessness that the king spoke of. Abdul Wahid Pederson represents the Muslim Council of Denmark.

Mr. ABDUL WAHID PEDERSON (Representative, Muslim Council of Denmark): It's a question of the world facing a struggle between the religious people and secularist people. And right now, the secularist people have the upper hand in many spheres, and they want to have the right to step on anything that anybody else holds holy or sacred.

SOCOLOVSKY: He's referring to the violent protests that broke out in the Muslim world three years ago over a Danish newspaper's cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Saudis say they chose Spain as a venue for this meeting because Muslims, Jews and Christians lived here in harmony in the Middle Ages. But it's no secret that Muslim leaders and the Vatican are worried about secularization in Europe, and in particular, here in Spain. For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.