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."
Now, it is not a bad thing that the major religions of the world want to get together and try and find areas they can agree. But to have Saudi Arabia lead the way on this issue is not only laughable, it is an insult to people of other faiths who have found their co-religionists thrown in jail or worse for being discovered practicing any other religion except Islam:
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.
So why are Bush and Rice participating in this charade?
I am at a loss for words why other, less religious European countries recognize the hypocrisy at play and are sending diplomatic flunkies to participate while we give this conference the full presidential treatment.