Religious Leaders Meet for First Time in Asmara

Religious leaders from Ethiopia arrived in the Eritrean capital Asmara on Wednesday for peace talks with their Eritrean counterparts, Eritrean radio announced on Thursday.

Although the talks - mediated by the non-governmental organisation Norwegian Church Aid - have taken place in third countries, this is the first time the religious leaders are meeting in each other's capitals.

Norwegian Church Aid said the move represented a breakthrough in peace-building between the two countries, following their two-year border war. The NGO believes that religious leaders are important stakeholders in the peace process.

The ceremony in Asmara was opened by the first Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Abuna Philipos. Addressing the gathering, Eritrea's Muslim leader Shaykh Al-Amin Uthman said the Ethiopian visit "demonstrates the love and respect the Ethiopian people have towards the people of Eritrea".

The Ethiopian religious leaders - including Patriarch Abuna Paulos of the Orthodox Church, Abuna Berhaneyesus of the Catholic Church, and Muslim leader Shaykh Abd-al-Rahman Husayn - along with their Eritrean counterparts, delivered a message of peace to the people of the two countries. The ceremony was attended by Eritrean government officials, ambassadors and other diplomats.

Eritrea's deputy ambassador to Kenya, Teweldemedhin Tesfamariam, said the meeting in Asmara was a "very positive development" towards peace. "These meetings between religious leaders can serve as a bridge for people to people contacts [from the two countries]," he told IRIN. Eritrean Foreign Minister Ali Sayyid Abdallah, who met the Ethiopian religious leaders on Thursday, said his government supported any peace initiative that benefited the people of the two countries.

The religious leaders were due to leave for the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa later on Thursday.