Bush promotes religious freedom at UN gathering

United Nations - U.S. President George W. Bush on Thursday called religious freedom the foundation of a healthy society and defended the U.S. record in protecting Muslims caught up in foreign conflicts

Addressing a United Nations "interfaith" meeting in almost certainly his last appearance at the world body, Bush, a devout Christian, said religious liberty was a central element of U.S. foreign policy that could best be promoted through democracy.

The meeting, attended by leaders and diplomats from some 70 countries, was initiated by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who in an opening speech on Wednesday denounced terrorism as the enemy of all religions.

Bush implicitly criticized countries that restrict religious practice. Saudi Arabia forbids public non-Muslim worship.

"Freedom is God's gift to every man, woman, and child -- and that freedom includes the right of all people to worship as they see fit," Bush said, noting that the United States had been founded by people fleeing religious persecution.

Bush was speaking a short distance from the site of New York's former World Trade Center, destroyed in 2001 by planes piloted by Islamist al Qaeda militants. His subsequent "war on terror" has been branded by some Muslim critics as a crusade against Islam.

Bush said God had called men "to oppose all those who use His name to justify violence and murder."

"Our nation has helped defend the religious liberty of others, from liberating the (World War Two) concentration camps of Europe to protecting Muslims in places like Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq,' said Bush, a Methodist who said faith had sustained him through his presidency, which ends in January.

"We're not afraid to stand with religious dissidents and believers who practice their faith even where it is unwelcome."

German minister of state Hermann Groehe defended the right to convert to another faith -- a right not recognized in some Muslim countries.

"It is unacceptable that up until now laws in some countries threaten those who want to convert with the death penalty," said Groehe, without naming any countries.

President Asif Ali Zardari of Muslim Pakistan said there was "nothing more un-Islamic" than discrimination, violence against women and terrorism, but also denounced hate speech against Islam in countries he did not identify.

"The imaginary fear of Islam has been rising," Zardari said. "This is exactly what the terrorists had hoped to provoke. Those in the West who accept this are falling into the trap of the terrorists."

Zardari, whose wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated by a suicide bomber last year, proposed an international agenda to combat hate speech, religious discrimination and bigotry and promote religious dialogue.