Saudi Arabia to Lead U.N. Faith Forum

United Nations - Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich Islamic kingdom that forbids the public practice of other religious faiths, will preside Wednesday over a two-day U.N. conference on religious tolerance that will draw more than a dozen world leaders, including President Bush, Israeli President Shimon Peres and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The event is part of a personal initiative by Saudi King Abdullah to promote an interfaith dialogue among the world's major religions. The Saudi leader agreed for the first time to dine in the same room with the Israeli president at a private, pre-conference banquet Tuesday hosted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. But Ban hinted that the two leaders -- whose governments do not have diplomatic relations -- were not seated at the same table.

"Normally, in the past, they have not been sitting in the same place like this. That is very important and encouraging," Ban said. "I wholeheartedly support the convening of the interfaith meeting that will be held here at headquarters tomorrow. The values it aims to promote are common to all the world's religions and can help us fight extremism, prejudice and hatred."

The Saudi initiative emerged in the summer during a meeting of religious leaders in Mecca. The Saudi leader subsequently drew a range of religious groups -- including Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Taoists and others -- together in Madrid in July, where they signed a declaration calling for greater cooperation among religions.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice planned to attend the conference to hear the Saudi King's opening address. Bush is scheduled to deliver an address Thursday. The White House said last month that it welcomed the Saudi initiative and supports "the right to practice one's religion" and other principles of religious freedom enshrined in the U.N. charter.

But Saudi Arabia's sponsorship of the event drew criticism from human rights advocates, who said that a country that oppresses its religious minorities lacks the moral authority to lead such a gathering.

"Saudi Arabia is not qualified to be a leader in this dialogue at the United Nations," said Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi national who serves as director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs. "It is the world headquarters of religious oppression and xenophobia."

Most leaders from Europe -- with the exception of Britain and Finland -- Latin America, Africa and Asia stayed away, sending lower-ranking representatives. Some U.N. delegates said they were put off by the prospect of holding a religious event in the world's premier diplomatic venue, the U.N. General Assembly chamber. They also expressed concern about having their top leaders participate in an event on religious tolerance sponsored by a government that has such a poor record on the issue.

"We all know what happens in Saudi Arabia," one U.N. ambassador said.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said a U.N. discussion on religious discrimination should spotlight places "where religious intolerance runs deepest, and that includes Saudi Arabia."

General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto, a Roman Catholic priest from Nicaragua who is co-chairman of the conference, sought to play down the event's religious significance. "We're not here to talk about religion. . . . We're here to talk about tapping our innermost values and putting them at the service" of the world's neediest people.

"Humanity is in moral bankruptcy, and we are in need of being bailed out," d'Escoto said. Asked whether Saudi Arabia had the moral standing to preside over the event, d'Escoto said: "I never conceived the United Nations as an organization of saints. We are in the world a community of sinners . . . and we should accept warmly any brother who wants to join forces to resolve" the most pressing problems.