Clark acts to sideline extremists

By Greg Ansley

The Government is planning a major diplomatic campaign to help contain religious extremism amid concerns that anger over New Zealand publication of Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad may spread throughout the Middle East.

Prime Minister Helen Clark yesterday confirmed that a resolution by most of the members of the Jordanian Parliament had demanded official retaliation against New Zealand.

Although there were no signs yet of similar moves in Iran or other countries in the region, she said the prospect was worrying Wellington.

"That's been my concern, that the ripple effects can go on to other [countries] who publish," she said.

"That's why I described the publication [of the cartoons by the Dominion Post and the Press] as gratuitous."

New Zealand diplomats were on fulltime watch around the regions where the cartoons could cause problems, with instructions to make it clear the Government was making big efforts to promote dialogue between different faiths.

Key initiatives of the wider campaign include the opening of the country's first embassy in Cairo, Egypt - a leader of moderate Islam - and co-sponsoring a meeting of senior religious figures of different faiths in the Philippines next month.

Wellington's initiative supports similar moves by Australia, which co-sponsored a similar, earlier, meeting, and which is extremely aware of religious sensitivities in its own large Muslim community and in neighbouring Indonesia, the world's most populous Islamic nation.

The moves have been spurred further by Muslim reaction to the cartoons, which have included the burning of embassies and trade retaliation.

"That's why both of us are giving such priority to matters like interfaith dialogue, which in the past hasn't come on to the agenda of governments," Helen Clark said after meeting Australian counterpart John Howard in Canberra yesterday.

"But in today's world, with the level of animosity between the Muslim world on the street and the Western world, it becomes an issue of very pressing importance."

Within New Zealand, Helen Clark said moves to promote religious tolerance included a "significant" meeting in Wellington this month, with diplomatic moves increasing abroad.

New Zealand had been represented with a 10-member delegation at the first interfaith meeting at Yogyakarta, Indonesia, co-sponsored by Australia and Indonesia, and in March would send a team to the next meeting in the Philippines city of Cebu in March.

"This is so important to us that, even before the cartoon controversy had broken, I had made the decision myself to go and speak at the opening session, along with the Philippines president," Helen Clark said.

She said New Zealanders lived in a region that intersected many of the great faiths - Christian majorities in New Zealand, Australia and the Philippines, Islam in Indonesia, Malaysia and parts of the Philippines, separate Chinese beliefs in Malaysia, and Buddhism elsewhere.

"So there are a lot of interfaith issues - against the background of which current world tension is being played out - in our region," she said. "We need to recognise that while the tensions are behind some of the problems, so the faiths can be part of the solution."

Helen Clark said the cartoon controversy underlined the importance of the decision to open an embassy in Cairo this year.

Egypt was the leading country in the Arab League and had tremendous influence in the region.

"It does have moderate leadership [and] we should be there," she said. "It fits in with the general strategy we have of empowering the moderates, building up the relationships with the moderate leaders of the Islamic world."

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