More interest in Saudi king’s inter-faith talks idea

Saudi King Abdullah, 20 May 2008/Ho NewRemember that unexpected comment that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah made in March that he wanted to hold an inter-faith dialogue with Christians and Jews? The Vatican welcomed it and the Tel Aviv newspaper Yedioth Ahronot reported that Saudi muftis were sending out feelers to Israeli rabbis about attending such talks, a report which was swiftly denied in Riyadh.

FaithWorld’s take on it at the time was sceptical. As Andrew Hammond in Riyadh wrote: “The king is seen in Saudi Arabia as a reformer but one who has been outmaneuvered by the powerful religious establishment and their allies in the royal family. The interfaith conference call may be a kind of trial balloon launched to see what kind of reaction it gets in a country where liberals and religious conservatives are engaged in an ideological struggle for the future of Saudi Arabia.”

The World Jewish Congress issued a statement on Monday welcoming the king’s proposal. It quoted WJC President Ronald Lauder as saying many obstacles still stood in the way but “King Abdullah’s initiative is a laudable step forward. We hope that other religious and political leaders throughout the world will be encouraged to join.” WJC Governing Board Chairman Matthew Bronfman added: “The World Jewish Congress is ready to participate in any serious inter-faith talks that are based on mutual respect.”

WJC President Ronald Lauder at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, 1 Oct 2007/Tobias SchwarzAnother Tel Aviv newspaper, Haaretz, took this a step further today with a story saying: “Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has sent an invitation to the World Jewish Congress for an interfaith dialogue with Muslim and Christian leaders, Haaretz has learned.” Now that would be news … if it were confirmed. But the WJC promptly denied the report, saying it had not received anything. The positive statement was issued now because the WJC steering committee just held its first meeting since Abdullah’s proposal and discussed it there.

The idea that Saudi Arabia would invite Christians and Jews to Islam’s heartland for “conferences between the religions to protect humanity from folly,” as Abdullah put it, is clearly too tempting for the Tel Aviv newspapers to ignore. But is it realistic to expect the Saudis to host such talks? Let us know what you think.

Saudi Arabian churches: a Vatican pipe dream?

Prophet Mohammad’s Mosque in Medina, 3 January 2007/Ali JarekjiMuch has been made of reports that the Vatican is holding talks with Saudi Arabia on building churches in the Gulf monarchy, the birthplace of Islam and stronghold of the conservative Wahhabi school of thought.

But it’s hard to imagine imminent breakthroughs, given broad-based scholarly opposition anchored in prophetic traditions and centuries of jurisprudence and commentary.

The IslamOnline (IOL) web site posted an article in Arabic polling prominent clerics on the issue, and offers some insight into the magnitude of clerical opposition such a prospect would generate.

Saudi mufti denies inviting Israeli rabbis

Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewThe call last week by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for an interfaith dialogue has provoked outraged reactions from Saudi Islamists and praise from Saudi liberals. Saudis of all persuasions were taken by surprise when Abdullah made his announcement, which met with a quick and positive response from religious leaders abroad. The Vatican was said to be especially interested in this idea because Abdullah made a groundbreaking visit to Rome and met Pope Benedict last November.

But one report in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot went to the nub of the matter — will Jewish rabbis be able to visit the bastion of Sunni Islam and home to Islam’s two holiest sites? That would be big news. As the Israeli daily reported it, the Saudi grand mufti, the official government spokesperson on religious affairs, had begun sending out feelers to Israeli rabbis to attend some meeting in Riyadh at an unspecified date.

Well, the report made it into English and led to the mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al al-Sheikh, issuing a carefully-worded denial. “The mufti clarified that what was published in some newspapers and news agencies saying that he had called on a group of Israeli religious scholars to take part in a religious reconciliation conference in Riyadh is devoid of any truth and has no basis,” the Saudi royal-owned paper Asharq al-Awsat reported on its front page on Wednesday. “He said: ‘I hope everyone will check facts before reporting things’.”