Countries attending a UN interfaith conference on Thursday rejected the use of religion to justify acts of terrorism, the killing of innocent civilians, violence and coercion.
A declaration agreed by participants from 80 nations at the high-level meeting expressed concern at "serious instances of intolerance, discrimination, expressions of hatred and harassment of minority religious communities of all faiths."
The participants "underlined the importance of promoting dialogue, understanding and tolerance among human beings, as well as respect for all their diverse religions, cultures and beliefs." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon read the declaration near the end of the two-day meeting which was initiated by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and brought 14 world leaders to New York including the US, Pakistani, Afghan and Israeli presidents.
"King Abdullah's initiative has come at a time when the need for dialogue among religions, cultures and civilizations has never been greater," Ban told a news conference. "It has brought together people who might not otherwise have a chance to interact. The challenge now is to go beyond the powerful, positive words we have heard."
Among the leaders brought together at least in the same room were the Saudi king and Israeli President Shimon Peres. Peres had rare praise for the Saudi monarch, saying on Wednesday his initiative to end the Arab-Israeli conflict inspired hope that all countries in the Middle East could live in peace. But Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal expressed disappointment on Thursday that Peres only talked positively about parts of the Arab peace plan and didn't mention others. The plan calls for Arab recognition of the Jewish state in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from all lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war. But Israel objects to relinquishing all territory and the right of all Palestinians to return, and it wants to keep a unified Jerusalem as its capital.
"It is not a peace proposal that you can divide into what is acceptable and what is not acceptable," Saud said. "It is a package deal and it was presented as a package deal. And so I think we still have a long way to go to be able to say that Israelis and Arabs see eye to eye on how they look at the peace proposal that the king has made."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stressed the importance of peace in the Middle East, telling the conference on Thursday that the creation of a Palestinian state side by side with an Israeli state "can be achieved by goodwill in the Middle East." Saudi Arabia has been criticized by Human Rights Watch and others for refusing to allow the public practice of any religion other than Islam and restricting those who do not follow the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
In light of its sponsorship of the conference, Saud was asked whether Saudi Arabia would now allow the freedom of religion and tolerance called for in the final declaration.
The Saudi minister said this was "an important question" for his country but indicated that the process must be gradual. "If you bring people together so that they understand that they have the same ethics, they have the same values, this will open the hearts and minds of people for further progress," Saud told reporters. "But to say from the beginning you have to transform yourself into something which you aren't now or nothing else can be achieved is, I think, carrying the argument too far." Many speakers spoke out against religious extremists and stressed the importance of tolerance and freedom of religion. US President George W Bush, who spoke just before Zardari in what was likely to be last address to the world body because he leaves office in January, echoed this theme saying: "We believe God calls us to live in peace and to oppose all those who use His name to justify violence and murder."
Bush said expanding democracy is one of the best ways to safeguard religious freedom and promote peace.
"People who are free to express their opinions can challenge the ideologies of hate," he said. "They can defend their religious beliefs and speak out against those seeking to twist them to evil ends. They can prevent their children from falling under the sway of extremists by giving them a more hopeful alternative." In the declaration, "participating states affirmed their rejection of the use of religion to justify the killing of innocent people and actions on terrorism, violence and coercion, which directly contradict the commitment of all religions to peace, justice and equality."
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari called terrorism, discrimination, and violence against women "un-Islamic" and urged world leaders to support the moderate Islamic principles advocated by his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto dialogue, tolerance and opposition to extremism.
He urged all countries to unite behind an international agenda in which "hate speech aimed at inciting people against any religion must be unacceptable (and) injustice and discrimination on the mere basis of one's faith must be discouraged not only in words but through meaningful actions."
Countries should also agree that "bigotry manifested in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism must be combated," he said.