"We must change current tendencies. We must substitute force with dialogue," said former Unesco director Federico Mayor Zaragoza at the conclusion on Tuesday of a three-day meeting of about 20 religious, political and cultural experts.

The experts were tasked with drawing up a list of concrete proposals for the UN by the end of 2006 on ways to counter extremism and promote respect between civilisations and cultures.

The high-level group, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Despond Tutu and former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami, is to meet three more times - the next in Qatar in three months - before producing recommendations next autumn.

Women decision-makers

Co-chairman of the group Mayor Zaragoza said participants had agreed that the perception of other people's cultures and religions in two areas in particular needed attention: youth education and the media.
 

Khatami warned against
growing Islamophobia

The participants also agreed to push for a greater presence of women in decision-making.

"We can't continue with a situation whereby women make up just 4% of decision-making groups," Mayor Zaragoza said.

There are those who prefer force over the word, imposition over dialogue, but it appears that throughout the world people have realised that change was needed, Mayor Zaragoza said, citing the positive response the alliance project had received throughout the world since it was launched by Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero last year.

"It is not an easy task but there is a lot of expectation in many countries that have realised that peace cannot be constructed by a just few governments, it's something we all have to take part in," Mayor Zaragoza said.

Unity of purpose

Mayor Zaragoza said the group hoped to involve the influential spheres of sport and music in spreading greater respect for different cultures.
 

Rabbi Schneier (L) stressed on
energising the silent majority

"What we're trying to do is energise the silent majority," said New York rabbi Arthur Schneier, founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation.

"We want to awaken their consciences."
 
He recalled recent demonstrations in Jordan against al-Qaida violence and called them "unprecedented", an example of people expressing opposition to violence.

British Christianity expert Karen Armstrong said that although there were minor disagreements among those attending, there was a strong sense of unity of purpose.

"There is this feeling that the clock is ticking and we have got to do better than we are doing at the moment," Armstrong said.

Talk shop

"In places such as Holland, the liberal tolerance for which Holland was famous has gone and people have a very hostile view of Islam, the old medieval hatred of Islam that existed at the time of the crusades"

Karen Armstrong
British Christianity expert

Armstrong added the alliance did not want the meetings to be "another talking shop" where nice-sounding noises were made about how good religions are, how we're all brothers and intolerance is bad.

There must be something practical, although she admitted the task of producing effective results "couldn't be harder".
 
Religious intolerance was a dominant theme, with Khatami warning of spreading Islamophobia in Western countries.

Armstrong cited the internet as a means by which messages of intolerance were able to reach many and gather followers.

"In places such as Holland, the liberal tolerance for which Holland was famous has gone and people have a very hostile view of Islam, the old medieval hatred of Islam that existed at the time of the crusades," she said. 

The second session of the alliance will take place in Qatar on 26-28 February.