"UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 11 -- 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.
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.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said a U.N. discussion on religious discrimination should spotlight places "where religious intolerance runs deepest, and that includes Saudi Arabia.""
I have blogged previously about Saudi Arabia, here are a few extracts that I think bear repetition:
"1) No symbols of any faith other than Islam are allowed into Saudi Arabia and the public practice of non-Muslim religions is prohibited.
2) Only Muslims are allowed into Mecca & Medina, the street signs are really quite shocking when you see them.
3) The Saudi government does not permit non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services.
4) According Saudi policy for tourists, it is not permissible to bring Christian or Jewish religious symbols and books into the kingdom and they are subject to confiscation
5) Until March 1, 2004, the official government website stated that Jews were forbidden from entering the country - the situation now is less clear"
"A Saudi woman and man were both gang raped by seven Saudi men, what would a suitable punishment be? It happening in Saudi Arabia, the punishment is partly in the form of lashes, 90 lashes apiece. However it happening Saudi Arabia, the 90 lashes apiece were handed down to the two victims of the gang rape. Yes, you read that right; the victims were each given a 90 lash punishment, in fact the poor Saudi woman who was gang raped 14 times has had her punishment increased to 200 lashes and six months in prison for trying to use the media to influence proceedings."
and replicated from Wikipdedia:
""Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy and the Government has declared the Qur'an and the Sunnah (tradition) of Muhammad to be the country’s Constitution. Freedom of religion is severely limited. Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. The Government prohibits the private and public practice of other religions. The Government bases its legitimacy on governance according to the precepts of the rigorously conservative and strict interpretation of the Salafi or Wahhabi school of the Sunni branch of Islam and discriminates against other branches of Islam."
"Under Saudi law conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy, a crime punishable by death if the accused does not recant."
"Saudi Arabia prohibits public non-Muslim religious activities. Non-Muslim worshipers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and sometimes torture for engaging in overt religious activity that attracts official attention."
"The Government does not permit non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services, although some come under other auspices and perform religious functions in secret. Such restrictions make it very difficult for most non-Muslims to maintain contact with clergymen and attend services. Catholics and Orthodox Christians, who require a priest on a regular basis to receive the sacraments required by their faith, particularly are affected."
"Proselytizing by non-Muslims, including the distribution of non-Muslim religious materials such as Bibles, is illegal. Muslims or non-Muslims wearing religious symbols of any kind in public risk confrontation with the Mutawwa'in. Under the auspices of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, approximately 50 so-called "Call and Guidance" centers employing approximately 500 persons work to convert foreigners to Islam. Some non-Muslim foreigners convert to Islam during their stay in the country. According to official reports, 942 foreign workers converted to Islam in the past year. The press often carries articles about such conversions, including testimonials. The press as well as government officials publicized the conversion of the Italian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia in late 2001."
"The Government requires noncitizen residents to carry a Saudi residence permit (Iqama) for identification in place of their passports. Among other information, these contain a religious designation for "Muslim" or "non-Muslim."
"Until March 1, 2004, the official government website stated that Jews were forbidden from entering the country"
"According to Alan Dershowitz, "in Saudi Arabia apartheid is practiced against non-Muslims, with signs indicating that Muslims must go to certain areas and non-Muslims to others.""
"According Saudi policy for tourists, it is not permissible to bring Christian or Jewish religious symbols and books into the kingdom and they are subject to confiscation""
Do you see why I believe that Saudi Arabia might be one of the worst countries to chair a U.N. conference on religious tolerance?