RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Saudi Arabia's king urged a gathering of Muslim scholars yesterday 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 United States 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.
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.