RELIGIOUS LEADERS IN JOINT CALL FOR PEACE IN HOLY LAND

By Nicholas Jubber

JERUSALEM, Jan 28, 02 (CWNews.com) -- Despite the focus on gun
attacks, suicide bombs, assassinations and reprisal raids, the most
violent week in the Holy Land since early December was also marked
by positive developments. One of them took place outside Israeli
borders; the other involved outside figures. Both represented
increased intercessions for peace on the part of religious leaders.

The first event occurred in Alexandria. On January 20-21, the
Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, the spiritual leader of
the world’s 77 million Anglican Christians, presided over a
conference that brought together Christian, Jewish, and Muslim
leaders in the Egyptian port city. Their 7-point statement, the "First
Alexandria Declaration of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land,"
represents the most aggressive engagement to date in the shattered
peace process by leaders of the three monotheistic faiths.

The second event is likely to have less influence on the peace
process. But it was important for showing local Christians that they
have the support of their co-religionists around the globe. From
Monday through  Thursday, January 21- 24, the spiritual leader of
the Holy Land’s Catholics, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, hosted ten
Catholic bishops from Europe and North America in Jerusalem. They
met Palestinian and Israeli politicians (including Palestinian
Authority Chairman Yassir Arafat and Israel’s former Justice
Minister Yossi Beilin), clergymen, diplomats, peace activists, and
ordinary residents.

Although both events were pre-arranged, their timing was
appropriate. The recent return to violence by the militant Palestinian
organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the Israeli seizure of an arms
consignment in which Arafat aides have been implicated, the Israeli
assassinations of Hamas activists, and the strikes on Palestinian
towns, not only ensured that the meetings took place amid
heightened tension, but also underlined their importance. At the
same time as the Pope was leading prayers for peace and religious
dialogue in Assisi, the American and European bishops were urging
Israeli and Palestinian politicians to break the cycle of violence in the
Holy Land.

The Alexandria conference was Archbishop Carey’s second visit to
the region in six months. Acting as co-chairman of the meeting--
along with the Grand Imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, Sheikh
Mohammed Sayid Tantawi-- he united five Christian, four Muslim,
and six Jewish leaders in the Montazah Palace. The Christian
representatives were a broad cross-section of denominations,
emblematic of recent ecumenical progress. Along with the Latin
Patriarch, they included delegates from the Greek Orthodox and
Armenian Patriarchates and the Anglican and Melkite Catholic
bishops.

The Muslim and Jewish representations were also eclectic. Ariel
Sharon’s deputy foreign minister Rabbi Michael Melchior and Chief
Sephardic Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron joined, among others, Rabbi
Menachem Froman. The latter’s presence was particularly significant,
because he lives in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.
The settlers are traditionally opposed to concessions, and are
considered by many Palestinians to be a major stumbling block
against peace. But Rabbi Froman is more conciliatory than most of his
neighbors: he has held peace discussions with Yassir Arafat and
Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, and has publicly
stated that he would be happy to live under the Palestinian
Authority. The most notable absence was the Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi
Israel Meir Lau, widely seen as Israel’s most influential religious
leader.

The Muslim delegation comprised supporters of Arafat, including the
Chief Justice of the Shari’a courts and Sheikh Tal al-Sidr, a minister of
state for the Palestinian Authority. But it did not include the Grand
Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the most influential
Palestinian Muslim leader and a public supporter of suicide bombers.

Despite these significant absences, the conference was supported by
Arafat, Sharon, Israeli president Moshe Katsav and Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak. Archbishop Carey himself insisted that the
event should have a positive effect: "I hope," he said, "this
conference and the declaration the religious leaders have concluded
may become a landmark in the quest forpeace and harmony. I hope
too it will come to be seen as an historic moment for the cooperation
of our three faiths in the region."

The opening words of the declaration manifest the common heritage
of those faiths: the signatories invoked "God who is Almighty,
Merciful and Compassionate" before acknowledging that "The Holy
Land is Holy to all three of our faiths" and calling for respect to the
"sanctity and integrity of the Holy Places." They also called on
Palestinians and Israelis to "live in the same land," for political
leaders to work for peace and adopt the Mitchell and Tenet accords,
and pledged themselves to "continue a joint quest for a just peace
that leads to reconciliation in Jerusalem and the Holy Land." They did
not, however, comment on specific issues, such as the return of
refugees, the legal status of settlements or Jerusalem’s most hotly
contested religious site: the Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount. The
most tangible outcome was the establishment of a permanent joint
committee to fulfill the conference’s recommendations.

Although Sheikh Tantawi did not sign the declaration, his presence at
the conference was significant. In 1997, when he met Rabbi Lau at
Al-Azhar, he was widely condemned in Egypt, and even had a
lawsuit filed against him on the grounds of religious violation. But as
the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, he represents the most influential
arena of mainstream Sunni Muslim thought. His implicit support for a
declaration that condemned "incitement and demonization" as well
as "bloodshed" represents a concerted effort by a major Muslim
figure to convey a more peaceful message of Islam than a loud
minority of his co-religionists have recently expressed. Tantawi,
considered a moderate in Egypt, counts the Coptic Pope Shenouda III,
Egypt’s most senior Christian figure, among his friends.

However, Archbishop Carey is under no illusions about the
conference: "no declaration", he conceded, "can act as a magic wand--
a panacea for all the ills and injustices, the savagery and inhumanity
that have scarred and continue to scar the Holy Land. We are not so
naïve. But it is our duty and our desire to do what we can to bring
forth good from evil-- hope from despair."

The visit of the bishops to Jerusalem promoted a similar message.
Representatives from the US, Canada, England and Wales, Germany,
France, Italy, and Switzerland, as well as the Council of Episcopal
Conferences of Europe, the Bishops’ Commission for the European
Union, and Catholic Relief Services, expressed "the need for
reconciliation as the foundation of peace" in a statement to the Holy
Land’s Christians. They pledged to promote and participate in "inter-
religious encounters," to "try to improve the public’s understanding
of the issues here" and to "encourage pilgrims to resume visiting the
Holy Land." They condemned both Israel’s occupation, and "random
attacks on innocent people."

They also wrote a letter to Ariel Sharon, in which they applauded the
Israeli government’s intervention over the construction of a mosque
in the shadow of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The
debate over the mosque has swelled into street violence in the past,
and its construction has been condemned not only by the Pope but
also by Arafat and Tantawi. The bishops criticized the Israeli police
force’s inaction during recent clashes, while urging Sharon to
"confirm once and for all that this work shall not proceed, so
demonstrating that your government is committed to protecting the
integrity of Christian Holy Places in Israel."