Meeting in Spain, Imams and Rabbis Pledge to Defuse Religious Tensions

It’s not often that the keynote speakers at a conference speak openly about the possibility that the meeting will fail. But speakers at the second World Congress of Rabbis and Imams for Peace, held Sunday through Tuesday in Seville, Spain, made it clear that if this year’s event doesn’t lead to a concrete plan of action, it will have to be judged a failure.

This is the second time that more than 150 rabbis and imams have come together in the name of peace, with the last congress held in Brussels. The group already is taking some small joint steps, such as examining textbooks used by Jewish and Muslim schools in Jerusalem to ensure that educational materials don’t encourage intolerance.

The patrons of the event — the kings of Spain and Morocco — couldn’t make it, but the Hommes de Paroles foundation, which sponsored it, stressed that the delegates who attended carry enough weight in their communities to make a difference.

The aim of the conference is to make a positive contribution toward resolving religious conflict wherever it arises. According to the representative of Moroccan King Mohammed VI, Andre Azoulay, “the word of God has been kidnapped,” and it’s no longer enough for religious representatives to watch from the sidelines as religion is used by those who preach hatred.

Things started positively. Rather than wait for the workshop sessions, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger called at the opening ceremony for the formation of an international association of religious groups, a sort of United Nations of Religions.

There also were early signs of mutual understanding. When Abdulaziz Othman, director general of the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization angrily called for an international law to stop the publication of offensive material such as the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that touched off violent riots throughout the Muslim world, Rabbi Michael Melchior, chief rabbi of Norway and a former Israeli Cabinet minister, condemned disrespectful attacks on any faith.

There was a willingness on both sides to take some level of criticism. When an Israeli rabbi harangued Muslims for not standing up sufficiently to Osama bin Laden, imams in the audience listened respectfully.

But rather than presenting specific ideas for joint initiatives, many of the religious leaders still seemed to behave as if it were the first congress of this sort, proud that rabbis and imams were simply meeting and talking together.

Meanwhile, difficult and relevant questions often were swept aside.

On the issue of terrorism, the leaders condemned any act of violence in the name of religion. When pushed to comment on how this might apply to Palestinian suicide bombers, however, the imam of Gaza, Imad al-Falouji, instead demanded that Israel change its policy toward the Palestinians.

When rabbis were asked to comment on the conditions that could lead to a sharing of the Holy Land, Rabbi Daniel Sperber from Bar Ilan University in Israel said that was an issue for politicians.

Tensions were never far from the surface, even over coffee, where al-Falouji argued with Stuart Altshuler, a rabbi from Orange County, Calif., over the status of Jerusalem and Israel’s occupation of West Bank land the Palestinians claim.

Faced with difficult questions from journalists, the rabbis and imams often would respond with bromides about believing in the same god and how peace begins with dialogue.

To break down barriers, the organizers brought in a Philadelphia communications specialist. Wearing a cowboy hat and barking orders into his microphone, he encouraged the religious leaders to write down their “issues” on pieces of paper, then line up to announce them to the audience.

These “open sessions” became the focus of the conference. Rabbis and imams lined up to announce issues ranging from anti-Semitism in Iran to Islamaphobia, from gender equality to Holocaust denial. The list was endless.

Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress’ Policy Council, rejected the idea that Jewish-Muslim tensions lie at the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He added that “religious crusaders” like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “must be exposed for what they are: Impostors.”

One topic that came up repeatedly was the Mohammed cartoon controversy. The hope is that in the future, the interfaith group could act to defuse such tensions before they get out of hand.

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