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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told world leaders at a U.N. interfaith meeting on Wednesday that terrorism is the enemy of all religions, calling for a united front to combat it and promote tolerance.
"We state with a unified voice that religions through which Almighty God sought to bring happiness to mankind should not be turned into instruments to cause misery," the king said, opening a U.N. General Assembly meeting initiated by Riyadh.
"Terrorism and criminality are the enemies of every religion and every civilization. They would not have emerged except for the absence of the principle of tolerance."
The two-day forum marks a new direction for Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil exporter, whose austere "Wahhabi" Islam came in for criticism after the September 11 attacks in 2001 on the United States, Riyadh's main ally and guarantor of security.
Fifteen of the 19 Arabs who killed some 3,000 people by flying planes into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon near Washington were Saudis, acting in the name of Saudi-born al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Since then, the Saudi monarch has sought to improve the image of a system in which the royal family rules in alliance with a powerful conservative clerical establishment.
Throughout history, Abdullah told the forum, conflicts over religious and cultural issues had led to intolerance, "causing devastating wars and bloodshed."
"Human beings were created as equals and partners on this planet," he said. "Either they live together in peace and harmony or they will inevitably be consumed by the flames of misunderstanding, malice and hatred."
U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and leaders and diplomats from some 60 other countries are taking part in the gathering.
Israeli President Shimon Peres seized the rare chance of sharing a forum with Abdullah to directly address him, praising his words and a Saudi Middle East peace initiative. Riyadh has no ties with the Jewish state and its officials shun Israelis.
"Your majesty, the king of Saudi Arabia, I was listening to your message. I wish that your voice will become the prevailing voice of the whole region, of all people. It's right, it's needed, it's promising," Peres said.
"The initiative's portrayal of our region's future provides hope to the people and inspires confidence in the nations."
The 2002 initiative promotes the formula of Israel trading occupied Arab land in return for normal relations.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also praised Abdullah, calling the meeting "a truly inspiring initiative for global harmony."
An international effort was needed to confront a rising tide of communal strife and religious extremism, Ban said.
"Extremist ideologies are on the rise. Societies are more polarized. Anti-Semitism remains a scourge. Islamophobia has emerged as a new term for an old and terrible form of prejudice," the U.N. chief said.
Jordan's King Abdullah said it was impossible to talk about interfaith harmony without resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
"I can think of no more effective way to ease East-West and interfaith tensions than to end this divisive conflict," he said.
The forum has come under criticism from human rights groups who say it gives Saudi Arabia a platform to promote religious tolerance abroad while imposing discrimination at home.
Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites, forbids public non-Muslim worship and imposes gender segregation and death sentences by public beheadings. Its own minority Shi'ite Muslims face discrimination.
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush believes "that the king of Saudi Arabia has recognized that they have ... a long way to go and that he is trying to take some steps to get there."
A string of Arab leaders said Islam was falsely accused of backing terrorism. They said the religion calls for moderation and tolerance and eschews extremism, violence and bigotry.
"As leaders and peoples, we must assume our historical responsibilities to examine our painful reality through a serious and sincere dialogue between people, religions and cultures," Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah said.
Diplomats said that to avoid possible disputes, the meeting was expected to end with a non-binding oral statement by the General Assembly president rather than a written declaration.
Editing by John O'Callaghan