Photo Courtesy of Middle East Online

U.A.E. Official Attacks Zionism at Saudi Conference

By JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN, Staff Reporter of the Sun | July 18, 2008

MADRID — The Saudi king’s talk of tolerance and moderation notwithstanding, the Jewish state is proving to be a divisive issue at the religious conference that the Saudi monarch has convened here.

The conference, the theme of which is interfaith dialogue, is an effort by the Saudi monarch to foster more cordial relations between imams in his country and Christian and Jewish religious leaders in the West. The conference is also drawing notice because Abdullah, whose kingdom includes the sites of Islam’s two holiest places, denounced religious extremism during his address on Wednesday to the Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish leaders who are participating in the conference.

Abdullah left Spain after opening the conference and is currently in Morocco. In an apparent effort to keep the Israel-Palestine issue from taking center stage, the Saudis did not include a single Palestinian Arab Muslim leader among the approximately 200 religious figures in attendance, conference participants say. And the one Israeli rabbi in attendance is listed on the program material as an American.

But after a day’s worth of speeches by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu leaders, in the middle of the fourth two-hour conference session, a government official from the United Arab Emirates urged Muslim leaders to avoid the company of Zionists.

“We have to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism,” the official, Izzeddin Mustafa Ibrahim, who is listed on the program as an adviser on cultural affairs to the president of the U.A.E., said. “Zionism is a political system. Judaism is a religion.”

He continued: “I can speak to pacifists but not bellicists, who are in favor of war.”

Mr. Ibrahim, a Muslim scholar of Christianity who said he has met with three popes in the interests of Christian-Muslim relations, then continued: “I have only one minute left,” referring to the amount of speaking time allotted to him, and finished off his statements with a broad appeal to begin a “Judaic and Islamic dialogue.”

“I believe it has to start,” Mr. Ibrahim said, referring to such a dialogue.

A New York rabbi, Marc Schneier, then took the lectern but did not directly respond to Mr. Ibrahim’s statements about Zionism. He spoke of outreach efforts in North America between imams and rabbis.

In an interview outside the conference room, however, another New York rabbi denounced Mr. Ibrahim’s remarks “as the same old rhetoric that has led to more hatred and the building of a wall between the Jews and the Muslims for the last 60 years.”

“Being anti-Zionist is the new canard for being an anti-Semite,” the rabbi, Jay Rosenbaum of Temple Israel in Lawrence, N.Y., said.

Despite the monarch’s efforts to foster discussion between Muslim clerics and religious leaders of other faiths, Saudi Arabia does not appear likely to embrace religious pluralism on its own soil.

Christians and Jews are forbidden from building houses of worship and from praying in public within Saudi Arabia. One of Saudi Arabia’s most senior religious figures, an imam of the grand mosque in Mecca, Saleh bin Humaid, told The New York Sun that there would be no such change in that policy.

“In the privacy of their home they can worship their God and perform their ritual freely,” the imam said through his translator. “Nobody will be harassed.”

“From a religious point of view, they can’t build a synagogue or a church because it’s a sacred place for Muslims,” Sheik bin Humaid said, referring to the entire country of Saudi Arabia.

In defending the policy, Sheik bin Humaid, who is also speaker of the Shura Council in Saudi Arabia, drew a comparison: “We can’t imagine having a mosque in the Vatican,” he said.

 

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