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Saudis Lead UN Conference On Religion And Peace, But Critics Scoff

Seven years after 15 Saudis hijacked U.S. jetliners and flew them into the World Trade Center, Saudi Arabia is leading a UN forum in New York this week to promote peace and interreligious dialogue.

Saudi King Abdullah is hosting the "Culture of Peace" gathering at United Nations headquarters on November 12-13. Also attending are leaders from some 70 countries including U.S. President George W. Bush, Israeli President Shimon Peres, the Palestinian prime minister, Jordan's king, and heads of state from Kuwait, Bahrain, the Philippines, Finland, Pakistan, and Lebanon.

The gathering, which follows up on Saudi-led talks in Madrid last June on interreligious dialogue, is part of a wave of diplomacy by Abdullah, who is also promoting a Middle East peace plan. Last year, Abdullah met with the pope and in March, he brought Sunni and Shi'ite clerics to Mecca.

However, critics question the UN interreligious conference being led by Saudi Arabia, which does not allow other faiths to be practiced on its soil. Like June's Madrid forum, this week's meeting will not be attended by Saudi Arabia's top Muslim clerics, including its grand mufti.

The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom says such freedom in Saudi Arabia does not exist. Its president, Felice Gaer, told Fox News, "The problem is this particular conference will legitimize the Saudis as somehow leaders [of the fight against religious intolerance] when they are the promoters of a particularly intolerant form of their own religions practice."

The conference comes amid a flurry of recent international efforts aimed at boosting dialogue between Islam and other religions. Last week, the Vatican hosted Islamic clerics to discuss common ground with Catholic leaders. The Vatican's chief official handling relations with Islam, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, is attending this week's UN gathering.

Also attending are leaders of Egypt's religious establishment, including Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the grand imam of Al-Azhar Mosque and grand sheikh of Al-Azhar University. Tantawi is seen as the symbolic leader of the world's 1 billion Sunni Muslims.

Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi Islam generally shuns contact with non-Muslims or "infidels." For many, that includes Shi'ite Islam, whose representatives do not appear to be attending the UN forum.

Saudi Arabia has sought to improve its image since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, as 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi-born. Some Saudi liberals say the king's efforts this week are an attempt to loosen extremists' grip on Islam in Saudi Arabia.

Muhammad al-Zulfa, a liberal member of the consultative Shura Assembly, told Reuters: "This hits at the extremists, who we say are wrong in terms of Islam. [But] there is opposition [to reform] from conservatives who have spent three decades controlling education, media, mosques and the street."

with agency reports