Leaders seek ways to ease religious extremism in Asia-Pacific region

Wellington, New Zealand - Religious extremism in the Middle East is spilling over into the Asia-Pacific region and testing the mettle of mixed-faith societies, New Zealand's prime minister told a forum on keeping peace between religions Tuesday.

"The heightened tensions of the Middle East have spilled over into our region, in the form of religious radicalization," Prime Minister Helen Clark said at the meeting of 150 politicians and faith leaders.

She did not elaborate, but cited the 2002 nightclub attacks by the al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah group that killed 202 people on Indonesia's Bali island as terrorism in the region that had been "fomented by extremists invoking the name of religion."

Clark made the comments at a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Interfaith Dialogue, a forum for officials from 15 countries to discuss ways of easing religious extremism in the region.

She said Asia-Pacific countries must build bridges between their societies, faiths and beliefs if they are to defeat religious extremism.

Communities in southern Thailand and the southern Philippines already face violence carried out in the name of religion, and directed at those who do not share that faith, Clark said.

"If we can make progress here, if we can build real bridges based on respect and acknowledgment of the shared values and worth of our different faiths and beliefs, then we defeat those who would trade in hate," she said.

The two-day meeting is being attended by officials from Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Fiji, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

As the meeting opened, rights activists outside protested the extra-judicial killings of some 850 left-wing activists, church leaders and journalists in the Philippines during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is attending the forum.

Scores of police sealed off the venue.

Also outside the meeting, more than 1,000 members of the fundamentalist Destiny Church protested a draft statement on religious diversity, which said New Zealand seeks to treat all faith communities equally.

Church leader Bishop Brian Tamaki said New Zealand's heritage was Christian, and it should stand up for its beliefs rather than promoting religious diversity.