Religious leaders offer ideas on Middle East peace

LONDON - Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders proposed a blueprint Thursday for helping end fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, saying they wanted to help resolve a conflict many see as being driven by religious differences.

The clerics suggested setting up an inter-religious council on Jerusalem and its holy sites, meeting with religious leaders believed to perpetuate violence, and using religious education to promote tolerance and reconciliation.

"Religion in the Middle East is seen by most of the people in the Middle East as the main source of conflict and division," said Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel's deputy foreign minister. "Here, for the first time, religious leaders are saying: 'We are taking responsibility for changing this.'"

"We are trying to create a different atmosphere," he continued. "It's just the beginning. It won't be successful until all the bloodshed has ended and there is a durable and just peace in the Middle East."

Melchior; former Palestinian Cabinet minister Talal Sidr; and Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem, the senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, conferred at a meeting hosted by Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey at Lambeth Palace, his London residence.

The group first gathered at a conference Carey organized in Alexandria, Egypt, in January, where they called for an immediate cease-fire and pledged to establish a permanent committee of representatives of the three religions that would work for peace.

That meeting had the support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Carey, who retires from his post next week, said the dialogue had advanced since the Alexandria meeting.

"We are here," he said. "We are talking, and talking honestly."

"In a world of malice and mistrust, this should stand as a sign that, in the face of seemingly impossible and insoluble difficulties, people of faith have not given up hope."

"We recognize the significant obstacles (posed) by the continuing occupation and the ongoing violence," Carey said. "We acknowledge the fear of communities that there will never be open acceptance by the other of their rights to be present in the Holy Land and believe that all have a duty to combat the mistrust that this generates."

The group planned to meet again Friday.