The visiting Norwegian Prime Minister has inspired the New Zealand Government to consider holding inter-faith peace conferences and to lift its role as an international peace negotiator.

Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, who is on an official visit to NZ, held talks with the Government yesterday which included discussions about international peace negotiations.

Norway has played a key mediating role in the Middle East peace process and in negotiations in numerous countries including Sri Lanka, Sudan, Guatemala and the Balkans.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said the Government was looking at helping to host or facilitate a regional meeting of religious leaders.

This would follow on from a summit of Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist leaders held in Indonesia last year that was largely funded by Australia.

Suggestions have been made that the summit could become an annual attempt to break down tensions in Asia and the Pacific.

"We are very interested in being involved in the next step and if there is scope for us to host or facilitate such a meeting, we are very happy to take that step," Helen Clark said.

The mix of religions around the region meant it was ripe for an inter-faith dialogue, she said.

As New Zealand considered its options, it would draw on the advice of Mr Bondevik, as he had a strong personal interest and experience in the area.

Mr Bondevik said religion played a part in conflicts throughout the world and it was important to emphasise the common values shared by religions to reduce tensions.

"Religion could be turned around from being part of the conflict to be part of the solution," he said.

It was often blamed as the cause of the conflicts whereas people's misuse of religion was often the cause.

It was fairly easy to get religious leaders to agree on what they had in common, but it was more difficult getting the message down to the grassroots level, Mr Bondevik said.

Helen Clark said New Zealand had a strong history of its defence forces being involved in peacekeeping activities, but less as a peace broker.

"I hope through dialogue with Norway we can start to see our way to being a little more proactive than we have been," she said.

Mr Bondevik said Norway would become involved in peace talks only if both parties in the conflict wanted it, and if Norway was able to make a long-term commitment and had the resources to invest in the region.

Both leaders stressed the common policy and political positions of New Zealand and Norway.

The only area of disagreement is New Zealand's opposition to whaling, which Norway strongly supports.

The two Governments have signed a joint working holiday scheme which allows people under 30 from each country to work and study in the other.

Mr Bondevik visits Auckland University today before leaving New Zealand.

Norway


* Population: 4,574,560.

* Land area: 307,860sq km.

* GDP growth: 0.6 per cent (2003).

* Economy: A mix of free-market activity and Government control. The state controls the vital petroleum sector.

- NZPA, STAFF REPORTER