Jewish, Muslim, Christian leaders meeting in Istanbul commit to bringing peace, not conflict

Istanbul, Turkey - Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders meeting in Istanbul Monday said religious figures have an obligation to be the voice of conciliation and peace, and not to incite religious conflict.

The leaders met at the beginning of a three-day conference called Peace and Tolerance II, devoted to interreligious cooperation for peace in southeastern Europe, the Balkans and Central Asia - regions that have recently been rife with religious conflict.

The spiritual leaders said it was time for them to become part of the solution, and not the problem.

The conference was held at the invitation of Istanbul-based Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, and was co-sponsored by the New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation.

In the elegant lobby of the Swissotel in Istanbul, men with white beards and hats signifying varying sects of the three monotheistic faiths embraced and chatted before the conference began.

A citizen of overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey and chief representative of one of the largest Christian churches in the world, Bartholomew has been praised for his devotion to conciliation among faiths, including to healing the centuries-old rift with the Catholic Church.

"It is only by searching for our common grounds, not of course for the sake of achieving the impossible unification of our faiths, but for the accommodation of our peaceful coexistence," Bartholomew said at the conference opening in his deep, deliberate voice, "that we will be happy for our fellow believers and nonbelievers to discover God's goodness."

Previous conferences co-sponsored by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation have brought together religious leaders in Vienna, Istanbul and Switzerland. In 1994, the representatives at the gathering adopted the Berne Declaration, which stated that a "crime perpetrated in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion."

The opening of the current conference was attended by Turkey's chief rabbi, the chief Islamic and Catholic representatives of Kosovo, the Armenian patriarch of Istanbul, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, the Turkish Minister of Religious Affairs, and religious leaders from the Caucasus and Central Asia.

U.S. President George W. Bush, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, President of the European Commission Jose Manual Barroso and Pope Benedict XVI sent letters of welcome to be read by their representatives.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, said two main goals of the conference would be to press governments to ensure that hatred was not taught at schools, and to take a stand against religious leaders who incited violence, to marginalize them and isolate them as what he called "social lepers."

Bartholomew said he hoped the conference would "unveil possibilities of understanding," or at least of "avoiding the participation of religion at large in the worsening of the situation."

The religious leader, Bartholomew said, "should not be influenced by emotionality or fanaticism. He should not actively consider his own judgment as the wish of God."

The conference is expected to release a formal declaration on Monday, which will be drafted and agreed upon by the representatives of the faiths present.