By Penny MacRae
Sat April 19, 2003 02:00 PM ET

Aga Khan Urges Tolerance in the World

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The Aga Khan, spiritual head of the world's 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, said on Saturday survival of an interdependent globe hinged on people showing tolerance of the cultures, values and faiths of others.

Prince Karim Aga Khan, speaking to Reuters in an interview in the aftermath of the Iraq war, said the need for better cross-cultural understanding had never been greater at what he called a "clearly a defining moment in world history."

Tolerance of other cultures, values and faiths was "essential to the very survival of an interdependent world" and education was a crucial tool in achieving this, said the Aga Khan, a wealthy philanthropist and a key force in preserving Islamic cultural history.

"Pluralism is no longer simply an asset or a prerequisite for progress and development -- it is vital to our existence," he said.

Shia Muslims are in the majority in Iraq, and Shia Ismaili Muslims -- scattered in more than 20 countries across the globe -- constitute the second largest Shia group in the world.

The Aga Khan said action should have been taken to stop looting of Iraq's priceless antiquities after Saddam Hussein was ousted.


"Baghdad is one of the greatest historic cities of our globe and therefore what was there was totally irreplaceable," he said.

The Aga Khan, considered the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, said the danger to Iraq's ancient treasures was "raised as a risk before the war was launched."

During the wave of looting that swept Baghdad after Saddam was toppled, mobs plundered the national museum without any intervention by U.S. troops. Police say some of the ransacking may have been the work of criminal gangs.

U.S. scholars said they had warned U.S. officials in the months leading up to the war to take steps to protect Iraq's artifacts that date from the earliest civilizations.

The United States has called the looting "unfortunate" and said it has offered rewards to retrieve the artifacts.

The Aga Khan, an Islamic scholar, said he feared "the same thing would happen" if Damascus was attacked, adding "there are few cities in the Islamic world (than Baghdad and Damascus) that you could damage which would be more painful" to Muslims.

U.S. charges that Syria is harboring Iraqi officials from Saddam's ousted government have stoked concern the nation could be the target of a future military strike, even though Washington has said it has no plans for military action.

Syria has denied knowingly sheltering Iraqi fugitives.

The Aga Khan, who heads a worldwide network of charities and businesses and generally shuns publicity, spoke to Reuters at the end of a six-day visit to India during which he met members of the country's Ismaili community.