Vienna hosts international conference on Islam

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A major international conference on Islam, held in Vienna this last week, heard appeals for religious leaders to condemn violence waged in the name of Islam. The three day meeting brought together over a thousand people including heads of state, intellectuals and religious leaders.

If there was one clear message after three days of talking about Islam - it was that violence and extremism in the name of religion should be more loudly condemned. Iraq's President Jalal Talabani appealed to clerics and scholars to denounce what he called "criminals who wage violence in the name of Islam." Ominously, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, predicted more terrorist attacks:

"As we move forward towards more stability and institution building in Afghanistan, we will continue to suffer from isolated terrorist that may occur here or there from time to time. That will go on in Afghanistan and in the larger part of the world."

But not all of the attention was on Islamic extremists. Vienna's Archbishop Cardinal Christoph Schonborn hit out at missionaries - both Muslim and Christian - who spread intolerance. "We must be open about our concerns, the danger of intolerance, and damage to religious freedom. We must name these things and together correct them," he said. There were other calls to break down the barriers between Islam and Christianity. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, General Secretary of the Islamic Conference Organisation said Islamaphobia in the West is a major obstacle to understanding between cultures.

"Islam is not these few people who are making killings here and there and putting bombs. Islam is a great civilisation - it has contributed to the international civilisation. You can not imagine what we have now - in science, technology, without the Muslims contribution."

The spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, also urged a "serious and open dialogue" with moderate Muslims.

Also calling for caution with words was Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik - in an obvious reference to the call by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Israel to be wiped off the map - she said it is not acceptable to question the right of existence of another. Echoing her concerns was Rabbi Arthur Schneier - holocaust survivor and president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation:

"Religion is like fire. Fire can warm, it can heat, but fire can also destroy, and there are some who use religion for diabolic plans. A crime committed, perpetrated in the name of religion, is the greatest crime against religion."

This international gathering of religious leaders aimed to improve the dialogue and understanding between religions and cultures. Certainly many speakers were critical of their failure to achieve this in the past and all warned of the danger of failing to achieve it in the future.