MADRID (AFP) — Saudi King Abdullah appealed for "constructive dialogue" to end disputes between the world's major religions as he opened an inter-faith conference in Madrid Wednesday.
"We all believe in one God... We are meeting here today to say that religions should be a means to iron out differences and not to lead to disputes," he said in an inaugural speech at the three-day World Conference on Dialogue.
He called for a "constructive dialogue to open a new page to reconciliation after so many disputes."
The conference is organised by the Muslim World League from an initiative by King Abdullah, whose country hosts Islam's two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina.
Around 200 participants are attending, including representatives of the world's major religions.
Among them are the secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, Michael Schneider, and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who is responsible for dialogue between the Vatican and Muslims.
"Most of the dialogue (between religions) has ended in failure...," King Abdullah said in the speech, delivered in Arabic. "To succeed we must emphasize the common link between us which a belief in God."
He said religion could combat many of the problems of modern society.
"Terrorism..., the breakdown of families, drugs, exploitation of the weak - all these are the consequences of a spiritual void."
After Wednesday's inaugural session at the Pardo Palace outside Madrid, four closed-door round tables will be held before a final communique on Friday.
The event takes place against a backdrop of tensions between the Islamic world and the West. They range from restrictions on the use of the veil by Muslim women in some European countries to cartoons regarded as blasphemous by Muslims and the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The secretary general of the Mecca-based Muslim World League, Abdullah al-Turki, said "the aim of this inter-faith conference is for us to get to know each other and to look for ways to cooperate.
He said "common issues between religions such as ethics, family, the environment" would be raised, but not religion or politics.
The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, said the conference was a "significant and timely development.
"It is the duty of religious leaders to work together to restore respect for ethical values and to avoid a 'clash of civilizations,'" he said in a statement ahead of the event.
The Vatican has described it as "an act of great courage," Cardinal Tauran said.
The staging of the conference in Spain, rather than in Saudi Arabia, provoked some debate in Spain.
But the Saudi ambassador to Madrid, Saud bin Naif, said the country "is a natural place of this type of dialogue... Spain has hosted for centuries the three major religions, they coexisted in harmony."
The newspaper El Pais interpreted the choice of Madrid as "an attempt to avoid a real debate in the Saudi kingdom where no one (among the non-Muslim participants at the conference) would have been able to practice their religion."
Saudi Arabia remains the only Arab Muslim country to ban all non-Islamic religious practices on its soil, even though it has a large community of expatriates professing other faiths.
Last November King Abdullah met Pope Benedict XVI during the first official visit to the Vatican by a monarch from the ultra-conservative Saudi kingdom.
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