UN conference rejects religious terrorism

United Nations - Countries attending a U.N. interfaith conference Thursday rejected the use of religion to justify acts of terrorism and other violence that kills and injures innocent civilians.

A declaration by 80 nations expressed concern at "serious instances of intolerance, discrimination, expressions of hatred and harassment of minority religious communities of all faiths."

But it promoted dialogue among nations and called for understanding and respect for diverse religions and cultures.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon read the declaration near the end of the two-day meeting which was initiated by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and brought 14 world leaders to New York including President Bush, the heads of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Israel's president.

"King Abdullah's initiative has come at a time when the need for dialogue among religions, cultures and civilizations has never been greater," Ban told a news conference. "The challenge now is to go beyond the powerful, positive words we have heard."

Many speakers spoke out against religious extremists, while defending tolerance and freedom of religion.

President Bush, who likely delivered his last address at the U.N., echoed this theme saying: "We believe God calls us to live in peace _ and to oppose all those who use His name to justify violence and murder."

Bush said expanding democracy is one of the best ways to safeguard religious freedom and promote peace.

"People who are free to express their opinions can challenge the ideologies of hate," he said. "They can defend their religious beliefs and speak out against those seeking to twist them to evil ends. They can prevent their children from falling under the sway of extremists by giving them a more hopeful alternative."

Among the leaders brought together _ at least in the same room _ were the Saudi king and Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Peres had rare praise for the Saudi monarch, saying Wednesday his initiative to end the Arab-Israeli conflict inspired hope that all countries in the Middle East could live in peace.

But Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal expressed disappointment Thursday that Peres only talked positively about parts of the Arab peace plan _ and didn't mention others.

The plan calls for Arab recognition of the Jewish state in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from all lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war. But Israel objects to relinquishing all territory and the right of all Palestinians to return, and it wants to keep a unified Jerusalem as its capital.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stressed the importance of peace in the Middle East, telling the conference Thursday that the creation of a Palestinian state side by side with an Israeli state "can be achieved by goodwill."

Saudi Arabia has been criticized by Human Rights Watch and others for refusing to allow the public practice of any religion other than Islam and restricting those who do not follow the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

In light of its sponsorship of the conference, Saud was asked whether Saudi Arabia would now allow the freedom of religion and tolerance called for in the final declaration.

The Saudi minister said this was "an important question" for his country but indicated that the process must be gradual.

"If you bring people together so that they understand that they have the same ethics, they have the same values, this will open the hearts and minds of people for further progress," Saud told reporters. "But to say from the beginning you have to transform yourself into something which you aren't now or nothing else can be achieved is, I think, carrying the argument too far."

In the declaration, "participating states affirmed their rejection of the use of religion to justify the killing of innocent people and actions on terrorism, violence and coercion, which directly contradict the commitment of all religions to peace, justice and equality."

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari called terrorism, discrimination, and violence against women "un-Islamic" and urged world leaders to support the moderate Islamic principles advocated by his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto _ dialogue, tolerance and opposition to extremism.

He urged all countries to unite behind an international agenda in which "hate speech aimed at inciting people against any religion must be unacceptable (and) injustice and discrimination on the mere basis of one's faith must be discouraged."