RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Islam must do away with the dangers of extremism and present the religion's positive message, Saudi King Abdullah said Wednesday as he opened a conference of Muslim figures aimed at launching a dialogue with Christians and Jews.
The three-day gathering in the holy city of Mecca seeks a unified Muslim voice ahead of the interfaith dialogue. In particular, Saudi Arabia hopes to promote reconciliation between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
"You have gathered today to tell the whole world that ... we are a voice of justice and values and humanity, that we are a voice of coexistence and a just and rational dialogue," Abdullah told the 500 Muslim delegates from 50 Muslim nations in his opening speech.
Abdullah walked into the conference hall Wednesday with powerful Iranian politician Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who later sat on the king's left on the stage, sending a message that the Sunni kingdom does not have a problem with moderate Shiites like him.
Saudi Arabia and mainly Shiite Iran are seen as top rivals for influence in the Middle East, standing on opposite sides of political divides in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia's official Wahhabi interpretation of Islam considers Shiites as infidels — and days ahead of Wednesday's gathering a number of hardline Wahhabi clerics issued a statement harshly condemning Shiites and Iran.
Abdullah announced in March that he wanted to sponsor an interfaith dialogue between the world's monotheistic religions — specifically including Jews. It was the first such initiative from a nation with no diplomatic ties to Israel and a ban on non-Muslim religious services and symbols.
He said Wednesday that the Islamic world faces difficult challenges from the extremism of some Muslims, whose aggressions "target the magnanimity, fairness and lofty aims of Islam."
"That's why (the conference) invitation was extended — to face the challenges of isolation, ignorance and narrow horizons, so that the world can absorb the good message of Islam," he said.
Rafsanjani praised Abdullah, saying, "Our brothers in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia ... have presented a great message to all humanity in the world."
"Before we speak with other religions, we must speak among ourselves and reach an understanding on a particular Islamic path," he said, calling for greater understanding between Sunnis and Shiites.
"We should support each other ... not weaken each other or sully each other's reputation," he said. "As a Muslim and a Shiite and an expert in Islamic issues ... I tell you that there are many things in common (between us) and there's no need to look at differences."
Participants say they hope the gathering will culminate in an agreement on a global Islamic charter on dialogue with Christians and Jews. They expect Saudi Arabia will launch its formal call for an interfaith dialogue at the conference's close or soon after.
Abdullah's message, which has been welcomed by Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, is significant.
The Saudi monarch is the custodian of Islam's two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina, a position that lends his words special importance and influence. Abdullah said Saudi Arabia's top clerics have given him their approval — crucial backing in a society that expects decisions taken by its rulers to adhere to Islam's tenets.
It remains unclear who will participate in the second phase of the initiative, in particular whether Israeli religious leaders would be invited. The kingdom and all other Arab nations except Egypt and Jordan do not have diplomatic relations with Israel and generally shun unofficial contacts.