(CNSNews.com) – President Bush will join other leaders at a Saudi-initiated inter-religious meeting at the United Nations this week, but critics of the Saudi regime say King Abdullah should be challenged on religious repression at home.
Participants at the “culture of peace” gathering in New York on Wednesday and Thursday are expected to call for promoting mutual understanding and tolerance, through dialogue.
Among those scheduled to attend are leaders from Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, Britain, Spain and the Philippines, said Enrique Yeves, spokesman for U.N. General Assembly president Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann.
Israel’s ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, also will take part. His presence has sparked headlines about a “historic” encounter between Israeli and Saudi leaders – Riyadh does not recognize the Jewish state – but Saudi officials have told Arab media that Peres’ invitation came from the U.N., not from Abdullah.
Yeves confirmed that, and said it was not the role of the General Assembly president to arrange bilateral meetings, such as one between the Israeli and Saudi leaders.
Nonetheless, Hizballah, the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group, called the conference a hoax. The group’s foreign affairs spokesman, Nawwaf Moussawi, said it was “a backdoor way of enforcing normalization with Israel.”
Other participants include U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the bloc of Muslim nations spearheading a campaign at the U.N. to outlaw the “defamation” of religion.
This week’s two-day interfaith meeting is the second in a series initiated by Abdullah, following one in Madrid last July, involving Muslim, Hindu Protestant, Catholic and Jewish religious leaders.
The previous month, Abdullah laid the groundwork by hosting a gathering of Sunni and Shi’ite leaders in Mecca.
The Saudi king, who last November he held a historic meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, has become a leading proponent of interfaith dialogue.
But he presides over a country where, according to the State Department’s annual international assessment, religious freedom does not exist. Saudi Arabia is one of eight most egregious violators of religious freedom, designated as a “country of particular concern” under U.S. law.
In line with the kingdom’s strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, churches are banned, public practice of non-Muslim religion is outlawed, and Jews and Christians are regularly vilified in sermons by state-funded imams. Non-Wahhabi Muslims also face discrimination.
Apostasy – the act of leaving Islam for another faith – carries the death penalty, although the State Department says there have been no confirmed reports of execution for the offense in recent years. (Convicted prisoners are on death row, however, human rights groups report.)
Jews, Israelis, Bibles, Stars of David not welcome
Critics note that while Abdullah hosted leaders from different Muslim sects in Saudi Arabia, his other initiatives have taken place outside the kingdom.
Any inter-religious meeting inside Saudi Arabia could draw opposition from conservative clerics unhappy with the presence of Christian and, especially, Jewish religious figures.
As recently as late 2003, the official Saudi tourism Web site informed would-be visitors that visas would not be issued to “an Israeli passport holder or a passport that has an Israeli arrival/departure stamp,” “those who don't abide by the Saudi traditions concerning appearance and behaviors,” and “Jewish People.”
After the restrictions came to light, the wording was deleted and replaced by a note saying “When erroneous information was noticed on [the Supreme Commission for Tourism’s] website, it was removed. SCT regrets any inconvenience this may have caused.”
Saudi Airlines later also amended the wording on one of its Web pages, where visitors were informed about banned items such as pornography and alcohol. It removed two sentences that read, “Items and articles belonging to religions other than Islam are also prohibited. These may include Bibles, crucifixes, statues, carvings, items with religious symbols such as the Star of David, and others.”
Ali Alyami, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, said Monday that meetings like those initiated by Abdullah aimed at “legitimizing the Saudi-Wahhabi allies as the leaders of the Muslim world which is not true and dangerous move.
Alyami said issues like apostasy and the applicability of Islamic law on non-Muslim citizens in Muslim countries should be at the top of the agenda, since any discussion of such matters would expose “Wahhabi intolerance.”
“Many Muslim scholars and others question the shari’a [Islamic] law and its obsoleteness in the 21st century.”
Ultimately, he argued, the Saudi leaders were not interested in “two-way religious tolerance.”
“They want non-Muslims to accept Islam and the shari’a law as well as the Islamic banking system without Muslims recognizing other faiths and their empowering values as legitimate,” he said.
Another U.S.-based organization that focuses on Saudi Arabia is the Institute for Gulf Affairs, which on Monday released a new report on the religious freedom “crisis” in the kingdom.
Institute director Ali Al-Ahmed said the meeting in New York was “an attempt to cover up the policies of religious oppression practiced by the Saudi government of King Abdullah, which aims to create an image of religious tolerance abroad while maintaining an oppressive regime inside the country.”
By endorsing Abdullah as a credible leader on religious dialogue, the U.N. General Assembly was “partaking” in religious oppression in Saudi Arabia, he said.
Felice Gaer, chairman of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was traveling Monday and could not be reached for comment. But a spokeswoman pointed to recent remarks Gaer gave to Fox News.
“We’d like to see a conference like this take place inside Saudi Arabia and the fact that it isn’t speaks volumes,” she said. "That's true of the Madrid conference [in July] and true of the one at the U.N.”
Gaer voiced the view that the conference was part of a Muslim
The USCIRF was established under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to give independent recommendations to the executive branch and Congress. It is under the same legislation that the State Department designates violator states as “countries of particular concern” (CPC).
The law provides for the use of sanctions or other diplomatic tools against foreign governments found to be restricting freedom of religion.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, which was added to the CPC list in 2004, the administration has waived sanctions, a decision criticized by the USCIRF.
Other countries currently on the list are Iran, Sudan, China, North Korea, Burma, Uzbekistan and Eritrea.