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Saudi king opens conference on interfaith dialogue
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    RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s king urged a gathering of Muslim scholars Wednesday to open religious dialogue with Christians and Jews. But politics intruded as a senior Iranian figure said the Islamic world should stand up to the U.S. and its ‘‘international arrogance.’’
    King Abdullah spoke at the start of a three-day conference of Islamic scholars, clerics and other figures in the holy city of Mecca called to get Muslims on the same page before the kingdom launches a landmark initiative for talks with adherents of other monotheistic faiths.
    The tone was one of reconciliation between Islam’s two main branches, Sunni and Shiite. Abdullah, one of Sunni Islam’s most prominent figures, entered the hall with Shiite Iranian politician Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who later sat at the king’s left in a gesture of unity.
    But while Rafsanjani spoke warmly of his host, he also highlighted the political divide between their nations by delivering pointed criticism of America, a Saudi ally. He accused the U.S. of greedily trying to control the region’s oil and said Muslims should resist it.
    Saudi Arabia has presented its dialogue proposal as a strictly religious initiative — an opportunity to ease tensions within Islam and between it and Christianity and Judaism.
    Still, the initiative has political implications, coming from a Mideast heavyweight that does not have diplomatic ties with Israel. Jewish leaders have generally praised Abdullah’s proposal, though it is not clear if Israeli Jewish leaders will be invited to take part.
    Participants say they hope the gathering will culminate in an agreement on a global Islamic charter on dialogue with Christians and Jews. They expect Saudi Arabia to make a formal call for an interfaith dialogue at the conference’s close or soon after.
    The initiative also represents a move by Abdullah to present oil-rich Saudi Arabia as a force for moderation in the region, despite the kingdom’s adherence to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam and its religious restrictions at home, including a ban on non-Muslim religious services and symbols.
    In his opening speech, Abdullah told the 500 delegates from around 50 Muslim nations that Muslims must do away with the dangers of extremism to present Islam’s ‘‘good message’’ to the world.
    ‘‘You have gathered today to tell the whole world that ... we are a voice of justice and values and humanity, that we are a voice of coexistence and a just and rational dialogue,’’ he said.
    He said the Islamic world faces difficult challenges from the extremism of some Muslims, whose aggressions ‘‘target the magnanimity, fairness and lofty aims of Islam.’’
    The Saudi outreach to Iran and Shiites was significant.
    Relations between Saudi Arabia and mainly Shiite Iran are uneasy as the two rivals for influence in the Middle East stand on opposite sides of political divides in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories. Wahhabi ideology also considers Shiites to be infidels, and days before the conference hard-line Saudi clerics issued a statement harshly denouncing Shiites.
    Several senior Shiite figures were invited to the conference, including Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah of Lebanon and Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which was strongly criticized by Saudi Arabia for overrunning mostly Sunnis areas in Beirut last month.
    The three leaders did not show up, but Fadlallah, who is recovering from a minor operation, sent his son, Sayyed Ali Fadlallah. In addition, two prominent sheiks from Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority attended.
    By inviting Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president who now heads two powerful clerical governing bodies, Saudi Arabia signaled it doesn’t have a problem with Shiites it sees as moderates.
    Rafsanjani is believed to be on good terms with Abdullah, and the two men worked to repair relations between their countries in the 1990s.
    Acknowledging his closeness to Abdullah, Rafsanjani referred to the Saudi monarch as ‘‘a very dear personality’’ in his speech.
    He also spoke of the growing Sunni-Shiite split, saying that before Muslims speak with adherents of other religions, they must patch up their differences. ‘‘It’s a sin to have conflicts,’’ he said.
    But Rafsanjani also underlined Iran’s differences with Saudi Arabia, saying Muslims should stand up to the United States and not let it gain control of the natural resources of Muslim countries — a pointed comment in oil giant Saudi Arabia, a key ally of Washington.
    ‘‘Why should this tremendous group (Muslims) be weak before the International Arrogance?’’ Rafsanjani said, using a common term among Iranian leaders for the U.S. ‘‘We do not want to use force or to be unjust, but we don’t want to hand over our rights to others.’’
    The U.S. is ‘‘greedy ... and (wants) to control our countries and to pressure us and plunder our wealth and resources,’’ he said.

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