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Israelis and Palestinians Talk Peace in the Italian Countryside of Assisi

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Meeting in the Umbrian hill town of Assisi where St. Francis was born eight centuries ago, “friendly enemies” Yossi Beilin and Faisal Husseini called for a speed-up in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

Beilin, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, and Husseini, who headed the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, attended an annual assembly of religious leaders of all faiths sponsored by a Rome-based Roman Catholic lay organization dedicated to furthering peace and ecumenicism worldwide.

The recent three-day meeting at Assisi coincided with talks in Oslo, during which Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat agreed to put aside differences over East Jerusalem in order to free up $2.3 million in donor aid for Palestinian self-rule projects.

Beilin and Husseini, presented as “friendly enemies,” appeared together at a panel discussion on “Israel-Palestine: The Challenge of Peace.”

The panel was chaired by Cardinal Carlo Maria, archbishop of Milan, who is currently considered a leading candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II.

The panel members agreed that outstanding key issues are the Palestinian prisoners still in Israeli jails, the status of Jerusalem and economic development in the Palestinian autonomous territories.

Both Beilin and Husseini urged swifter action to seek accord so as not to lose the momentum of the peace process.

While asserting that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are “willing to pay the price for peace,” Beilin said it is difficult to convince Israelis of the need to free Palestinians who have assassinated Israeli children and students.

Beilin also underlined the crucial need for economic aid for the Palestinian-governed territories, and said it is up to Israel to help produce that aid.

“If the inhabitants of the Middle East don’t see tangible development, they will not support peace,” he said. “If the poor of the West Bank and Gaza don’t see some rays of hope, they will say what is always said after a peace agreement: that the leaders sign but we are always left in poverty and with the same problems, without any benefits.

“We Israelis,” the deputy foreign minister said, “must become promoters throughout the world of aid to stabilize the new Palestinian entity so that peace is something tangible and gives the people the sensation of having something new in their lives.” The community of St. Egidio, which organized the Assisi meeting, announced that it would call a weeklong meeting in Jerusalem in May 1996 in order to involved religious as well as political leaders in the ongoing Middle East peace process.

St. Egidio also backed a drive to collect 1 billion lire ($660,000) in Italy to support projects in Gaza, Jericho, Hebron and other West Bank communities.

The Assisi assemblies began eight years ago when the pope invited leaders of all the world’s faiths to gather with him in the medieval hill town where St. Francis, who devoted his life to the promotion of peace, was born in 1182.

John Paul did not travel to Assisi for this year’s meeting but sent a message endorsing its work.

Those attending included President Mario Soares of Portugal and other world leaders, as well as Rabbi David Rosen of Jerusalem; Mohammed Moktar Sellami, the grand mufti of Tunisia; Roman Catholic Archbishop Wilfrid Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa; and leaders of the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Shinto and Tenri Kyo faiths.

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