By Andrew Hammond
RIYADH, March 27 (Reuters) - A surprise call by King Abdullah this week for an interfaith dialogue fits with Saudi Arabia’s policy of promoting moderation to combat militancy but will probably not lead to dramatic meetings soon, observers say.
The octogenarian king said in a speech this week that he would hold meetings with Muslims around the world to build a consensus for a new dialogue with Christians and Jews, after winning approval for the idea from some Saudi clerics.
Saudi newspaper commentaries suggested the king’s motives were addressing militant violence inside Muslim countries and tension between Muslims and the authorities in Europe.
"The dialogue could clear up some facts about our religion, far from the distortions that extremists and fanatics have caused," wrote Saudi daily newspaper al-Jazirah, referring to militant violence in Saudi Arabia and the region.
"All Islamic societies should become involved in this great religious act whose intent is to create communication between the believers of the three monotheistic religions," it said.
Saudi Arabia has faced a violent campaign since 2003 by al Qaeda militants who question the royal family’s legitimacy because of their close alliance with the United States and has watched with alarm as militant activity in the region continues.
But commentators said they found it hard to imagine a major interfaith summit featuring senior figures held in Saudi Arabia, at least anytime in the near future.
They cited the nature of Islam as promoted in Saudi Arabia, where some clerics once openly supported al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Mecca and Medina are barred to non-Muslims and the Vatican has complained that Christians cannot build churches.
"It’s not for listeners to take these things too seriously, but it’s a good sign," said preacher Mohsen al-Awajy, a Wahhabi moderate who maintains links with conservatives and reformers.
"The message of tolerance is everyone’s message, whether it’s serious or not," he said.
Several Christian and Jewish leaders abroad welcomed the king’s comments and expressed interest in talks. His proposal is independent of a Christian-Muslim dialogue recently launched by Muslim scholars known as the "Common Word" initiative.
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Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s holiest sites and considers itself the leader of mainstream Sunni Islam. But its powerful religious establishment enforces a harsh Islam alien to many of the world’s Muslims because of practices such as imposed gender segregation in public and death sentences by public beheading.
In a vote highlighting its distance from other Muslims, the Shura Council, a quasi-parliamentary body, has refused to back efforts by many Islamic countries to have the United Nations draw up a global pact on respecting religions and their symbols.
Such a pact, which other Muslim states seek in response to controversial Prophet Mohammad caricatures and works critical of Islam, would require that Saudi Arabia recognises other faiths it considers mere idol-worshipping, Council members argued.
The king is seen in Saudi Arabia as a well-intended reformer whose plans for change have largely been foiled by hardline clerics and their allies within the Saudi royal family.
This month, an independent Wahhabi cleric issued a fatwa saying two writers should face death if they did not recant what he called heretical articles they had published.
The dialogue call prompted bitter criticism from As’ad Abu Khalil, a Lebanese political scientist and popular blogger, who compared it to a call by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels for "a conference on tolerance".
The plan also raised eyebrows since it comes amid tension between Muslims and Christians in the last two years over Danish cartoons lampooning Prophet Mohammad and Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech implying Islam is inherently violent.
This week Pope Benedict very publicly baptised a prominent Italian journalist who was born an Egyptian Muslim, sparking more negative coverage in Saudi and Arab media.
"People ask about the timing. Why now? — considering that the region is going through real turmoil and sectarianism is raising its head," said Saudi political analyst Khaled al-Dakhil. (Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor) (Editing by Mary Gabriel)