Top Christian and Muslim leaders open conference on Islamic affairs

CAIRO, Egypt - Islam should not be associated with terrorism, top Christian and Muslim leaders told a conference on Islamic affairs Monday.

Religion could not be a source of evil, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in a speech read on his behalf by Prime Minister Atef Obeid.

In a reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mubarak said: "the distinction should remain clear between those who use their legitimate right of resistance to rid their land of foreign occupation which violates all international rules, regardless of their religion, and those who commit violence with the aim of terrorizing people and continuing the occupation of their land by force."

The theme of the 14th General Conference of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs is "the reality of Islam in a changing world." The United States and several European countries are among the 65 nations taking part in the four-day meeting.

The conference will address the concepts of jihad — or holy war — violence, terrorism and Islam's relationship with other religions and civilizations.

Pope Shenouda III, head of the Egyptian Orthodox Church, told the conference he is "surprised at those who attack Islam and associate it with terrorism."

"We don't agree with the campaign that attacks Islam because of a certain incident," Shenouda said in an apparent reference to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States that were carried out by 19 Islamic militants.

"The mistakes of an individual or a group can't be attributed to the religion itself," Shenouda added.

Grand Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi of Al-Azhar, the highest Islamic authority in Egypt and in the Sunni Islamic world, emphasized that "Islam stretches its hand with peace to all those who stretch their hands with peace."

"The difference in religious doctrines doesn't at all prevent cooperation among their people," Tantawi added.

A spate of Palestinian suicide attacks in Israel have revived the unresolved debate among Muslim clerics on whether Islam sanctions such attacks. Islam does not sanction conventional suicide, but many Muslims regard suicide bombers as martyrs for a cause. Israel and Western states have condemned the attacks as terrorism.

"Why, when one Israeli is killed it is terrorism, and when tens of Palestinian women, children and elder people are killed it is self defense? The West, and on top of it America, are biased toward Israel," the chief Muslim cleric of Jerusalem, Ikrema Sabri, told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the conference.