The bigoted kingdom of Saudi Arabia is to host a conference on racial tolerance...
UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 11 -- Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich Islamic kingdom that forbids the public practice of other religious faiths, will preside Wednesday over a two-day U.N. conference on religious tolerance that will draw more than a dozen world leaders, including President Bush, Israeli President Shimon Peres and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
The event is part of a personal initiative by Saudi King Abdullah to promote an interfaith dialogue among the world's major religions. The Saudi leader agreed for the first time to dine in the same room with the Israeli president at a private, pre-conference banquet Tuesday hosted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. But Ban hinted that the two leaders -- whose governments do not have diplomatic relations -- were not seated at the same table.
"Normally, in the past, they have not been sitting in the same place like this. That is very important and encouraging," Ban said. "I wholeheartedly support the convening of the interfaith meeting that will be held here at headquarters tomorrow. The values it aims to promote are common to all the world's religions and can help us fight extremism, prejudice and hatred."
The Saudi initiative emerged in the summer during a meeting of religious leaders in Mecca. The Saudi leader subsequently drew a range of religious groups -- including Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Taoists and others -- together in Madrid in July, where they signed a declaration calling for greater cooperation among religions.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice planned to attend the conference to hear the Saudi King's opening address. Bush is scheduled to deliver an address Thursday. The White House said last month that it welcomed the Saudi initiative and supports "the right to practice one's religion" and other principles of religious freedom enshrined in the U.N. charter.
But Saudi Arabia's sponsorship of the event drew criticism from human rights advocates, who said that a country that oppresses its religious minorities lacks the moral authority to lead such a gathering.
"Saudi Arabia is not qualified to be a leader in this dialogue at the United Nations," said Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi national who serves as director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs. "It is the world headquarters of religious oppression and xenophobia."
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