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Saudis host a global interfaith conference in Madrid: a 'first step'

The three-day meeting, which runs through Friday, has been cast as 'historic' but also criticized as a PR stunt.

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More than 500 years after Spain's golden age of tolerance among Jews, Christians, and Muslims came to a definitive end, leaders of those faiths – as well as of Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism – are meeting at a royal palace on Madrid's outskirts in a bid to boost interreligious understanding.

In his opening remarks Wednesday at the three-day conference, host Saudi King Abdullah reminded his audience – nearly 300 religious, political, and cultural leaders from 50 different countries – of their shared purpose.

"If we want this historic encounter to succeed, we must look to the things that unite us: our profound faith in God, the noble principles and elevated ethics that represent the foundation of religions," he said.

He linked societal woes like terrorism, racism, crime, drug abuse, and the breakdown of the family to losing touch with religion: "All this is the consequence of the spiritual void that people suffer once they distance themselves from God."

Because the conference is being hosted by Saudi Arabia, a country where religious pluralism is not tolerated, enthusiasm for the interfaith venture is tempered with a fair dose of caution. With sessions dedicated to broad themes like "Dialogue and Its Importance within Human Society," few attendees expect concrete gains or proposals to emerge from the gathering.

Rather, many stress that the meeting's importance lies with the mere fact that Saudi Arabia is hosting a conference on interfaith dialogue – and, for the first time, has invited Jews to such a meeting.

The dominant religion in Saudi Arabia is a conservative strand of Sunni Islam, sometimes called Wahhabism, which does not permit the open practice of non-Muslim faiths and often rejects interfaith dialog with their adherents.

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