Mideast religious leaders say they vital to peace

Washington, USA - In an unusual joint appearance, senior Israeli and Palestinian religious leaders said on Wednesday they were not a roadblock to peace in the Middle East but a vital part of the process.

Dressed in traditional religious garb, the chief rabbis of Israel sat alongside Muslim leaders and Christian patriarchs and said they had agreed on steps to help resolve the conflict.

"It is our responsibility to find the right way to live together in peace rather than to fight and kill one another," the leaders, who make up the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, said in a joint statement.

The leaders said they had agreed that each religious community should respect other faiths' holy sites. They said they wanted to set up a "hot line" of rapid communication among the groups to deal with issues of protection and access to holy sites to avoid clashes.

They also said they wanted to demonstrate through their relations that differences could be addressed through dialogue, not violence.

"This opportunity and this interfaith dialogue can really much help in moving the peace process forward," said Salah Zuhayka, assistant secretary of the Palestinian Ministry of Religious Affairs.

While they had not reached any agreement on the status of Jerusalem, the council agreed to "seek a common vision for this city which all of us regard as holy."

The statement was issued during a gathering of the council in Washington, where they were also meeting with U.S. lawmakers.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, said the united front should help in the quest for peace.

"This gathering here today is really proof that it is important for political leaders to recognize and to take comfort in the fact that the religious leaders are on their side in working for peace," McCarrick told a news conference.

The meeting of religious leaders comes weeks before a Middle East conference with Israelis and Palestinians was expected to take place in Annapolis, Maryland.

"We are not a problem. We are part of the solution," said Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Catholic Church's leader in the Holy Land.

"We are here to say no political solution can work without the religious dimension. To ignore it is a guarantee that it will fail," said Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, who spoke on behalf of the chief rabbis of Israel.