Critics are blasting the United Nations for hosting a meeting to talk about religious and cultural tolerance sponsored by Saudi Arabia, a country in which the U.S. government has said religious freedom is non-existent.
Following up on an interfaith meeting they held in Madrid in July, the Saudis asked the United Nations to hold a meeting on the "Culture of Peace," but some think it’s a move to lend support to the defamation of religions resolution that the world body will vote on this fall.
The U.N. General Assembly will host the Culture of Peace meeting initiated by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in New York on Nov. 12-13.
The White House announced on Wednesday that President Bush will attend the meeting on Nov. 13, and will also meet with King Abdullah while in New York.
"The President appreciates King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's initiative in calling for this dialogue and remains committed to fostering interfaith harmony among all religions, both at home and abroad," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement.
Israeli President Shimon Peres will also attend the conference. Peres supports a Saudi-sponsored plan to make peace between Israel and the Arab world, but it is unclear if the two nations will discuss the plan while in New York, the Associated Press reported.
Jordan, Bahrain, Lebanon, Kuwait, the Philippines and Finland have also agreed to attend.
The Assembly President, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, a Catholic priest, invited all member nations and observers, including the Vatican, to attend the meeting which it called a "useful prepatory step" towards an interfaith and intercultural meeting it will hold in 2010.
Enrique Yeves, Spokesman of the Presient of the General Assembly Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann said that the meeting will focus on more than religious dialogue — the topic of the Madrid meeting — and also touch on cultural issues.
"This is not a meeting on religious dialogue only it is about dialogue among cultures," Yeves said. "I don’t' know who has called it interfaith because its official name is Culture for Peace. For some reason most people, especially in the media, believe that it is only on religious dilalogue but it is further than that."
Critics say that Saudi Arabia's track record on religious tolerance and human rights shows that its dialogue initiative is just talk. The State Department has considered it a "country of particular concern" since 2004, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom considers religious freedom to be non-existent in the Arab kingdom.
"We'd like to see a conference like this take place inside Saudi Arabia and the fact that it isn't speaks volumes. That's true of the Madrid conference and true of the one at the U.N.," said commission chairwoman Felice Gaer.
The practice of religions other than Islam, and Wahhabi Islam in particular, in Saudi Arabia is forbidden, so religious leaders of other faiths could not go to Saudi Arabia, she said.
There are between two and three million non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Gaer said, and most are expatriate workers from foreign countries who "have to sign labor contracts requiring them essentially to waive their human rights to freedom of religion and to submit themselves to rather abusive treatment."
Churches are also forbidden in the country.
Saudi Arabia ranks second on the Open Doors 2008 World Watch List of countries that persecute Christians and the State Department has classified it a "country of particular concern" when it comes to violating the right to religious freedom.
"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is, by our estimates, one of the worst places on the earth for religious tolerance. There is none. There is no religious liberty in Saudi Arabia at all," said Carl Moeller, president and CEO, Open Doors USA is a Christian ministry dedicated to supporting persecuted Christians around the world.
His organization has worked with many Christians who have faced persecution in Saudi Arabia, and he's not convinced Saudi Arabia is sincere in its desire to have open religious discussions.
"This is a very, very bad place and it's hard to believe than their king, the head of this government, would be calling for some religious tolerance conference," Moeller said. "It may be a public relations coupe, but I don't know that there will be much change on the ground for Christians in Saudi Arabia."
Commission chairwoman Gaer thinks it's more than a public relations move for the Saudi government, it’s a cooperative effort between Muslim nations to reinforce the defamation of religion resolution they're sponsoring before the General Assembly this fall.
The resolution, introduced by Pakistan to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 1999 has been taken up by the General Assembly and passed every year since 2005.
The non-binding Resolution 62/145 adopted in 2007, says it “notes with deep concern the intensification of the campaign of defamation of religions and the ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim minorities in the aftermath of 11 September 2001.”
It “stresses the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred, against Islam and Muslims in particular.”
Gaer said the Saudi-sponsored inter-faith meeting in Madrid, like the U.N. resolution, was part of an attempt to legitimize sharia law by making attendees sign a declaration that said the participants would encourage "respecting heavenly religions, preserving their high status, condemning any insult to their symbols."
"This was a Madrid declaration calling for or affirming the idea of the global blasphemy law in slightly moderated language," she said. "This would give them the freedom to declare anything from cartoons to incitement to a whole range of things to be defamation."
Twenty-two members of the Council of the League of Arab States adopted the declaration and asked the U.N. and UNESCO to do so as well.
The defamation of religions resolution has been criticized for acting as a shield for countries that persecute any insult to Islam and intimidate Western nations that may attempt to criticize them.
"The problem is that this particular conference will legitimize the Saudis as somehow the leaders [of the anti-religious defamation movement] when they are the promoters of a particularly intolerant form of their own religions practice," Gaer said. "It will promote this idea of defamation which puts severe restrictions on freedom of expression and turns the whole concept of human rights on its head."