Religious parley in Egypt decries killing of innocents

ALEXANDRIA (January 22) - A dozen prominent Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders issued a joint declaration here yesterday declaring the killing of innocents a desecration of God's name and defamation of religion.

The three-day gathering, organized by Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, was billed by Carey and Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, another driving force behind the conference, as "historic" and "unprecedented."

The declaration, which Carey imbued with weight by calling it the "First Alexandria Declaration of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land," included a seven-point pledge by the leaders to use their "religious and moral authority to work for an end to the violence and the resumption of the peace process."

The final draft of the declaration was sent to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat yesterday afternoon for his approval before the Palestinians in the delegation signed it.

Although representatives of the three religions signed the document, different clauses in it are open to different interpretations.

For instance, the first clause includes a sentence that reads: "The sanctity and integrity of the holy places must be preserved, and freedom of religious worship must be insured for all."

When Sheikh Abdulsalam Abu-Shkhaidem, mufti of the Palestinian Police, was asked by The Jerusalem Post if this means Jews should be allowed access to the Temple Mount, he replied: "No, no, no. I am not going to pray in the church, I am not going to pray in the synagogue. That is what it means. I pray in my place, and they pray in their place. That means give me access to go to my mosque, and I am not stopping you from going to your church or synagogue."

Reminded that Jews are being stopped from going to the Temple Mount, Shkhaidem said, "They have no right to go there, this is a mosque - the whole Temple Mount."

Regarding whether the Western Wall is also part of the mosque, Shkhaidem - who in the list of delegates handed out at a press conference was referred to as "mufti of the armed forces" - said, "This is another matter, I don't love to talk about it."

Carey, at a press conference at the Alexandria Sheraton to unveil the declaration, said a permanent committee would be set up to work out questions such as those regarding the Temple Mount and the dispute over the construction of the mosque in Nazareth.

Carey sidestepped questions about the issues, saying it is first of all important not to "underestimate the significance of getting such a body together." Secondly, he said, "We are starting out on the journey together. We don't have to do everything in the first 36 hours."

"Of course, no declaration by religious leaders or anyone else can act as a magic wand, a panacea for all the ills and injustices, the savagery and inhumanity that have scarred and continue to scar the Holy Land," Carey said. "We are realistic people, not naive people. But it is our duty and our desire to do what we can to bring forth good from evil, hope from despair."

Among the Jewish representatives, in addition to Melchior, were Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, Rabbi Yitzhak Ralbag of the Chief Rabbinical Council, and Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee's director of religious affairs.

The Muslim delegation included Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, head of Egypt's Al-Azhar University, the supreme Sunni Muslim religious institution; Sheikh Taysir Tamimi, head of the PA's religious courts, who blasted Israel during a public interreligious forum with the pope two years ago; and Sheikh Tallal Sidr, a minister without portfolio in the PA cabinet.

The Christian representatives included Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah, Bishop of Jerusalem Riah Abu el-Assal, and Archbishop Aristichos of the Greek Patriarch.

Melchior, speaking at the press conference, said the gathering brought together "some of the greatest religious leaders of this area" speaking in a language people are not accustomed to hearing.

"For many years we have heard how religion is used to blow people up," Melchior said. "Because of this, many of the leaders have wanted to ignore religion, thinking it is a kind of demon."

Melchior argued, however, that "there cannot be peace between the Palestinians and Israelis if there is not a new language between our religions." The purpose of the conference he said was to begin creating this new language.