Saudi Arabia Leader Calls for Interfaith Dialogue

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called for a dialogue among monotheistic religions Monday, marking a first for the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom.

"I ask representatives of all the monotheistic religions to meet with their brothers in faith," Abdullah told delegates to a seminar on "Dialogue Among Civilizations between Japan and the Islamic World," according to the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

"If God wills it, we will then meet with our brothers from other religions, including those of the Torah and the Gospel... to come up with ways to safeguard humanity," he added.

Abdullah said the country's top clerics have given him approval to pursue his idea and that he plans to get the opinion of Muslim leaders from other countries.

According to SPA, the Saudi king also intends to address the United Nations on the subject.

"We have lost sincerity, morals, fidelity and attachment to our religions and to humanity," Abdullah said Monday, deploring "the disintegration of the family and the rise of atheism in the world – a frightening phenomenon that all religions must confront and vanquish."

Abdullah's call for dialogue comes at a time of religious tensions caused by the re-igniting of a two-year-old controversy over Danish cartoons deemed by Muslims to be insulting.

Danish newspapers reprinted the controversial cartoon of the Muslim prophet Mohammed last month in defiance of Islamic extremism and to defend freedom of expression.

The republication of the cartoon in at least 17 newspapers took place a day after a Danish official foiled an alleged plot to assassinate Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist who drew the Mohammed caricatures.

In response, Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in a recent audio message, warned of a "severe" reaction for Europe's publication of the cartoons.

"The response will be what you see and not what you hear and let our mothers bereave us if we do not make victorious our messenger of God," said a voice believed to be bin Laden's, without specifying what action would be taken.

Abdullah's announcement Monday also comes as the Vatican is in the process of negotiating for permission to build the first church in Saudi Arabia following this month's inauguration of Qatar's first Christian church.

The Saudi monarchy has long banned the open worship of other faiths, even as the number of Catholics resident in Saudi Arabia has risen to 800,000 thanks to an influx of immigrant workers from places like the Philippines and India. Mosques are the only religious buildings in the country where the strict Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam dominates.

Top Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that a Catholic parish in this key Islamic country would be "a historic achievement" in the push to expand religious freedom and foster a positive interfaith rapport, according to Time magazine.