MADRID (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah opened an unprecedented meeting of Muslims, Christians, Jews and other believers on Wednesday with a call to shun the extremist violence that has tarnished the reputation of religious faith.
The three-day conference in Madrid aims to showcase a more tolerant side of the kingdom's strict Wahhabi Islam under fire since 15 Saudis were among the 19 Arabs who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.
It was the first time Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslims cannot practice their faith openly, invited Jews to such a meeting. The king also invited Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs.
"Differences do not lead to conflict and confrontation, we have to state that tragedies that have occurred in history were not caused by religion but extremism adopted by some of the followers of each one of the religions," said King Abdullah, flanked by Spain's King Juan Carlos at a royal palace in the hills west of Madrid.
Jewish and Christian leaders said Abdullah had taken a momentous step to fight the forces of religious fanaticism. Abdullah launched the dialogue plan after meeting Pope Benedict at the Vatican last November.
There was caution at how effective the event might be in achieving that goal, given no Israeli Jewish leaders were on the list of 288 religious, political and cultural figures attending the event, including Tony Blair and Jesse Jackson.
"If it moves ahead and there are meetings including official Israeli representatives in Saudi Arabia and it expands this, it will be the wonderful beginning of a very historic process," said Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee.
"If it doesn't do that then it's another photo opportunity," said the British-born rabbi, who is based in Jerusalem but was listed at the conference as American.
Abdullah said previous attempts at interfaith dialogue had failed because they focused on religious differences.
"If we want to have success in this historical meeting, we have to emphasise what we have in common, the belief and deep faith in God," said the monarch, whose royal family rules Saudi Arabia in alliance with Wahhabi clerics.
Participants at the meeting saw a huge step forward in inter-faith engagement.
"This will not be a one-off conference. I'm sure the commitment of the king to engage in dialogue will continue," said Anthony Ball, Secretary for International and Inter- Religious Relations for Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
Such a gathering would have been impossible in Saudi Arabia, where traditional clerics have shunned contact with non-Muslims and even seen other Muslims, particularly Shi'ites, as infidels.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Saudi rulers embarked on a series of reforms to improve the image of the Wahhabi system.
But they still face possible opposition at home. The word "religious" was dropped from the meeting's title, making it simply "The World Conference on Dialogue" in an apparent effort to satisfy traditionalist clerics.
Rabbi Burton Visotzky of New York's Jewish Theological Seminary said the event showed Saudi Arabia had ended what he called an "exclusivist and closed door" stance towards other faiths and hoped the next conference would be in Saudi Arabia.
"To see King Abdullah come and sit in a room with Christians, Jews and other religious leaders, it is a moment in Islam much like what Vatican II was for the Catholic theology," said Visotzky, referring to the 1962-1965 council at which the Vatican recognized the validity of other religions.