Hope for Coexistence Enthuses Delegates to World Conference on Dialogue in Spain

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (center) speaks with King Juan Carlos of Spain (right) in the presence of Queen Sofia (left) at the Royal Palace in Madrid on July 15. (Photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP-Getty Images)

Editor's note: The World Conference on Dialogue took place last week (July 16-18) in Madrid, Spain.

"I never expected anything like it" was the comment of one Pakistani Muslim attending the World Conference on Dialogue organized by the Muslim World League and hosted by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

He could have been speaking for most of the participants at what is proving to be quite an extraordinary experience.

Almost all agree that the diversity of clerics and other delegates is nothing short of remarkable. In addition to those from every corner of the Muslim world and of every variety (Sunni muftis, Shiite imams, jurists, academics, and more)there are innumerable bishops, priests, theologians and lay people from all Christian denominations and all parts of the world, plus a veritable phalanx of rabbis (European, American, and Israeli) not to mention Hindu priests and Buddhist monks. Doubtless, there are others as yet undiscovered.

The variety and color of clerical garb of many seen swirling in the conference hotel lobby and at the opening event at the El Prado Palace was in itself a remarkable statement about the event. This was dialogue in Technicolor. Sunni muftis in white thobes, turbaned Shiite imams in brown cloaks, a cardinal in red and black, bishops in purple, bishops in black, bishops with remarkable headgear and jeweled crosses, rabbis with skullcaps and hats, Hindu priests in orange and vermilion, Buddhist monks in grey—it is a riot of color—and all not only mixing together with smiles on their faces and chatting together excitedly, but greeting and hugging each other like long-lost friends. The sight of one Hindu priest in orange cloths wandering along a path outside the royal palace just behind a Saudi imam in white thobe just after the opening event provided all the symbolism that was needed.

But, in fact, most people were in everyday wear, suits in general, and it was not easy to know who was what. At one point, I found myself sitting at a table with an Iraqi who turned out to be a Yazidi, a Japanese man who is a Shinto priest, and an Indian Muslim who turned out to be a former correspondent for Arab News!

The symbolism of such a diverse presence at the conference was not lost on the delegates, several of whom are already involved in local interfaith dialogues in various parts of the world. It more than made up for the practical problems which were only to be expected in a conference that was organized at such short notice. It is a direct follow-on to the International Conference on Dialogue which took place in Makkah (Mecca), Saudi Arabia, last month. Only those, it seems, who attended that remarkable event were in any way prepared for the no less extraordinary one in Madrid.

The fact that the conference has taken place at all is one that many commented on yesterday. "Who would have imagined such an event as this after 9/11?" said one British participant. An Arab bishop expressed much the same astonishment, but it was astonishment laced with strong admiration: "I never imagined seeing so many faiths here."

Anglican and Roman Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis were equally surprised. For them, the importance of the conference was not what it may achieve in final statements, significant though they may be, but in itself—as proof that people of different faiths can come together without rancor and suspicion and instead with warmth and hope—and work for the common good.

That view was echoed by a senior Melkite Catholic cleric from Jordan; he was fulsome in his praise for King Abdullah and his initiative. "We always need wisdom in political leaders if there is to be peace," he said. Dialogue and the conference were "of the greatest importance." But there was realism in his attitude: "This was done by the Saudi leadership; now it is up to us, the participants, to take it to the people."

For much-admired British rabbi David Rosen, it would be foolish, however, to imagine that religion alone can answer all the questions. "If politicians do not do what is needed, it [dialogue] will fail. Religion cannot succeed by itself." But he added that politics will fail if it does not take religion into account. Religion needs to be brought into dealing with conflicts as "a source of reconciliation and peace." Pointing specifically to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he believed that peace initiative after initiative had failed "because there was no religious input."

But even he is an evident enthusiast about the conference. Enthusiasm is the prevailing mood—that and a sense that King Abdullah has performed a remarkable feat in causing such an event to happen. There is, however, one other sentiment among all here. It is the view that this has to be the first of many such conferences; that if there is no follow-up to Madrid, dialogue will falter.

However, having been given a lead, those here are unlikely to let that happen.

Michel Cousins is a principal lead writer for Arab News. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.