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Chief rabbi hails Saudi king's initiative

Matthew Wagner and ap , THE JERUSALEM POST

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger welcomed on Tuesday an initiative from Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for dialogue among monotheistic religions, including Judaism.

"I give my blessing to every initiative that can prevent bloodshed and terror, especially in our area of the world," Metzger said, in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post.

He added that militarism and terror in the 21st century were primarily religiously motivated. Therefore, interfaith dialogue was the best antidote, he said.

"When Osama bin Laden talks of punishing Europe or Israel, he speaks in the name of religion. That's why it is so important to hear moderate elements of Islam voice their opinions. Hopefully, they will have a positive influence on the Muslim masses.

"If an imam in Saudi Arabia sends out a message of restraint and peace, that could save the life of a Jew in Paris," Metzger said.

Interfaith dialogue was also a way of uprooting stigmas and stereotypes, he said.

In a speech late on Monday, Abdullah said Saudi Arabia's top clerics had given him the green light to pursue interfaith dialogue with Christians and Jews.

"The idea is to ask representatives of all monotheistic religions to sit together with their brothers in faith and sincerity to all religions, as we all believe in the same God," the king told delegates to a seminar on "Culture and the Respect of Religions."

The clerics' backing is crucial in a society that expects decisions taken by its rulers to adhere to Islam's tenets. The monarch also said he discussed the idea with Pope Benedict XVI when they met at the Vatican last year. The king's remarks were carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

"I have noticed that the family system has weakened and that atheism has increased. That is an unacceptable behavior to all religions, to the Koran, the Torah and the Bible," he said. "We ask God to save humanity."

The Saudi monarch is the custodian of Islam's two holiest shrines - in Mecca and Medina - a position that lends his words special importance and influence among many Muslims. Saudi Arabia, which follows a severe interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism, bans non-Muslim religious services and symbols of other religions, such as crosses and Bibles.

Rabbi David Rosen, American Jewish Committee's international director for interreligious affairs, said this would be the first time the Saudis had showed a willingness to engage in interfaith dialogue with Jews.

"I just hope that the move will include Jewish leaders from Israel," said Rosen, who is based in Jerusalem, citing rumors from Egypt that the Saudi initiative would not include Israelis "who butcher Palestinians."

"Nevertheless, I believe any contact with responsible representatives of the Jewish people is a positive step.

"I am not nave enough to think that if I have contact with the Saudis, I will turn them into Zionists. But I am a believer in the human encounter. I believe the way to combat prejudice and bigotry is through familiarity with the other's culture, religion and history. It is what I call the psycho-spiritual glue that is essential to the success of any peace process," Rosen said.

Since ascending to the throne in August 2005, Abdullah has taken steps to encourage dialogue among Saudi's Sunni majority and Muslim minorities, including the Shi'ites. His meeting with Benedict was the first between a Saudi monarch and a pope.

Abdullah said he planned to hold conferences to get the opinion of Muslims from other parts of the world as well as meetings "with our brothers in all religions which I mentioned, the Torah and Bible, so we can agree on something that guarantees the preservation of humanity against those who tamper with ethics, family systems and honesty."

He said that if such an agreement were reached, he planned to take his proposal to the United Nations.

Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel said that he was open to dialogue with Muslims.

"We have many issues in common," said Ariel, a leading national religious spiritual leader and halachic authority who is relatively hawkish politically.

"The loss of family values in the Western world is a major concern for both Jews and Muslims," he said. "The licentiousness of secular society is undermining the family institution. One billion Muslims can identify with that."

Ariel also mentioned egregious sex and violence on TV and Internet as a shared concern of Islam and Judaism.

His main reservation concerning the Saudi initiative was that the stage might be hijacked by individuals with a political agenda.

"If the Saudi king asked for my advice, I would tell him to stay away from politics," he said.

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