Saudi king opens interfaith conference in Mecca

Extremists distort the tolerance of Islam, King says


King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called on Muslims to stand together against extremism and reach out to the world as he opened a conference on interfaith dialogue in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, official media said on Wednesday.

"You are meeting here today to say to the world with pride that we are a fair, honest, humanitarian and moral voice, a voice for living together and dialogue," King Abdullah said in a speech carried live on state television.

The conference of Muslim scholars – Sunni and Shiite – was organized by the Saudi-based Muslim World League and is the first step in a plan announced by the Saudi king earlier this year to create a Muslim dialogue with Jews and Christians.

The meeting brought together Sunni scholars from around the world, such as Egypt's Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, and some Shiite figures including former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The monarch pointed out that among the major challenges now facing Muslims is combating a growing extremism.

"The challenges facing the (Muslim) nation are difficult at this time, as its enemies -- including those extremists among its own people -- have joined forces in a flagrant aggressiveness to distort the ... rightfulness and tolerance of Islam," he said.

"This call is intended to face the challenges of isolationism, ignorance and short-sightedness."

Saudi Arabia was hit by an al-Qaeda campaign on its own territory when militants launched attacks against foreigners and government installations in 2003 to destabilize the kingdom.

Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia's official religious representative, said Islam honored Jesus Christ and the biblical prophets of Christians and Jews.

In a speech he cited a saying of Islam's Prophet Mohammad: "I am the closest person to Jesus, son of Mary, in this world and the next. I am the prophet who came after him".

Rafsanjani, an influential Iranian Shiite cleric, said Muslims needed to start talking among themselves in order to have a dialogue with other religions.

"The call needs to be directed at ourselves first of all, and all the sects need to agree on shared points. As a Muslim and a Shiite ... I say the things we agree on are many," Rafsanjani said.

In March, Abdullah proposed inter-faith talks among Christians, Jews and Muslims in a first for the kingdom, which is home to two of the three holiest shrines in Islam.