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Jewish Leaders Optimistic After European Union Interfaith Meeting

June 2, 2006
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Jewish leaders were optimistic following a high-profile interfaith meeting held by the European Union. The Tuesday meeting was attended by Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders from across Europe, as well as Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Fifteen delegates were invited to Brussels to represent their faith communities in a discussion focused on the role religious communities should play in the promotion of freedom, democracy and human rights across Europe.

Organized by the E.U. Bureau of European Policy Advisers, the meeting was chaired by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, together with Wolfgang Schussel, chancellor of Austria, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the E.U.

The event follows a similar gathering of religious leaders at the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive wing, in July 2005, but this was the first time that such an initiative has had the support of the E.U. presidency.

Europe’s Jewish community was represented by Chief Rabbi Rene Gutman of Strasbourg and Bas-Rhin in France and Chief Rabbi Albert Guigui of Brussels, both members of the Conference of European Rabbis, the organization which coordinates Europe’s chief rabbis.

Barroso hailed the meeting as a “very important moment,” adding that dialogue between faiths was a “vital condition in understanding their differences.”

Delegates spent three hours discussing issues affecting their communities in front of senior members of the European Commission, including the employment, justice and education commissioners, as well as Barroso and Schussel.

The meeting was also attended by Iranian born Shia leader Ayatollah Seyyed Abbas Ghaemmaghami, who expressed a willingness to work with Jewish leaders on common issues such as ritual slaughter.

Guigui, also permanent representative of the Conference of European Rabbis to the European Union, was positive about the meeting.

“The fact that the European Union now has a clear structure for interfaith dialogue gives us great hope that we can continue these meetings into the future,” he told JTA.

Guigui added that he and Gutman had raised several key issues affecting the European Jewish community, notably the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe.

“Anti-Semitism is a very deep problem for the Jewish communities of Europe and the president said that they are preparing an E.U. forum to fight that phenomenon,” he said.

Imam Abduljalil Sajid, a representative of the U.K.-based Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony, said the meeting had shown a lot of “hopes and aspirations” among faith leaders.

Although there was nothing new in the gathering of religious leaders, Sajid said, the presence of such influential European politicians made it a “historic event.”

“There’s no alternative to dialogue, but what we need now is actions to follow it all up.”

Philip Carmel, director of international relations at the Conference of European Rabbis, said the meeting had been a real landmark.

“Bringing together religious leaders from all the monotheistic faiths of Europe under the flag of the European Union is something that I regard as very positive,” he said.

“It gives a sign that the E.U. is committed to real interfaith dialogue and to integrating people of faith into the European discussion to build a better society.”

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