Saudi king calls for new interfaith dialogue

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah plans to launch an effort at dialogue between Islam, Christianity and Judaism to help end inter-religious tension, Saudi media said on Tuesday.

State television showed the octogenarian king telling a forum in Riyadh that he would hold meetings with Muslims around the world to build a consensus for a new dialogue with Christians and Jews.

"I want to call for conferences between the religions to protect humanity from folly," he said in a speech where he spoke positively of his meeting last year with Pope Benedict.

"I wanted to visit the Vatican and I did and I thank him. He met me in a meeting I will not forget, a meeting of one human being with another. I suggested this idea," he said.

He said he had secured support of Saudi clerics over the past two years for the proposal. The reports, also carried in the daily newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, did not say which clerics.

Conservative Saudi Arabia champions a hardline form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism and many Wahhabi clerics regard even fellow Muslims of the Shi'ite sect as heretics.

Followers of other faiths are forbidden to build public houses of worship.

King Abdullah has led the Saudi government's campaign against al Qaeda militants who turned their attention on Saudi Arabia in 2003, launching a violent campaign against the U.S.-allied royal family.

The king is regarded as a reformer, although diplomats say clerics and their allies have been resisting his plans for reforms including a loosening of strict social and religious customs.

The Vatican, which wants Saudi Arabia to allow Christians to worship freely, runs its own interfaith dialogue with Muslim clerics.

The king's speech came just days after Pope Benedict baptized an Italian Muslim convert of Egyptian origin, an act denounced in some Arab newspapers and by some groups as provocative.

Saudi clerics had helped mobilize Muslims around the world in 2006 over Danish newspaper cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad, prompting Riyadh to withdraw its ambassador.

But reaction has been muted to Danish papers' republishing one of the cartoons last month, and diplomats in Riyadh say the authorities are keen not to enflame tensions.