UN to Host Meeting of World's Religions
BYLINE: Herve Couturier
DATELINE: UNITED NATIONS, Nov 11 2008
World leaders gather at the United Nations on Wednesday and Thursday for a conference on inter-faith relations that was overshadowed by uncertainty even before starting.
Seventeen heads of state are expected to attend, including US President George W. Bush and the leaders of Arab nations and of Israel, countries where religion and politics are especially sensitive.
The conference comes as US president-elect Barack Obama, who has signaled greater flexibility for US foreign policy in mostly Muslim geopolitical hot spots, readies to take power.
Two days of meetings will take the form of a debate in the UN General Assembly under the official theme of "culture of peace."
The conference was organized by the General Assembly president, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, a Nicaraguan Catholic priest who adopted the leftwing liberation theology and served as foreign minister under Sandinista rule.
However, the meeting comes at the call of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who is keen for a UN follow-up to efforts at promoting inter-faith dialogue in the "World Conference on Dialogue" held last July in Madrid.
King Abdullah, who rules as the head of an ultra-conservative Wahabite Muslim royal family, went to Madrid seeking "constructive dialogue" aimed at opening what he called "a new page of reconciliation" among major religions.
The Madrid declaration that followed that meeting was noted for its call for an international agreement on fighting the root causes of terrorism.
This time it is not clear whether the session will end with a UN resolution or a lower-grade declaration, said Enrique Yeves, spokesman for d'Escoto. "They are still negotiating among themselves."
Diplomatic sources said there was no chance of a resolution and perhaps not even of a declaration because of splits between countries on the nature of the problem in religion and politics.
One source said that Saudi Arabia had proposed a text inacceptable to European countries because of a reference to the "mocking of religious symbols," an issue deeply offensive to Saudis, but seen as a free speech matter in many Western states.
"It's extremely sensitive. That raises important questions and could create many misunderstandings," the diplomat said.
The representatives of 65 countries are planning to speak, Yeves said, including King Abdullah, Bush, Israel's Shimon Peres, and Britain's premier Gordon Brown.
France is sending only former prime minister Alain Juppe, but "we think it's a good thing that religions talk," said UN Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert.
Ripert said that sending a serving government representative was impossible.
"The idea is that we do not mix religious matters... with public matters," he said.