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An Unprecedented Inter-religious Council: Putting Faith in Annapolis?

11/27/2007

A two-state solution cannot be successful unless it is compatible with the history and religion of Israelis and Palestinians. The moral authority of the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land could be pivotal in convincing both peoples that the Road Map to Peace is acceptable.

"If this had been an easy conflict to resolve and to end, it would have been done years ago," said Secretary Rice in Ramallah on November 5. "There have been attempts that have not succeeded. And so the question that we have to ask ourselves is how do we prepare the ground for the very best possible chances of success?"

In preparation for the Annapolis peace talks, the U.S. State Department is looking for ways to make this conference succeed where others have failed. Secretary Rice plans to resume hashing out details of the "economic foundation" and the "security of two states living side by side," but the key issue remains: profound mistrust. The 2001 Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee was on the right track, reporting, "The restoration of trust is essential." Past negotiations have focused on practical details while hydroplaning over this central point. This time around, the U.S. wants to foster trust, but it cannot do it alone. Religious institutions in Jerusalem may be able to lend the authority and widespread influence necessary for such a task.

Secretary Rice has met with the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, an increasingly credible assembly that includes the most senior Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders in the region. The unprecedented interfaith communion is founded on a series of principles laid out in the Alexandria Declaration of 2002 that committed them to promoting a non-violent resolution of conflict. The pioneering Council, based in Jerusalem, made a giant leap forward by holding a press conference in Washington D.C. on November 7.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah opened the conference by stressing that religion has been misused by extremists to inflame the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that the institutional religious leaders condemn violence. He affirmed that politicians could now confidently declare that religion is no excuse for proliferation of the conflict, "We are here to say, we are not the problem, but part of the solution."

The Council delivered a unified message to support peaceful coexistence with both a Palestinian and Israeli state. The Councilís communique outlined six goals, including: protection of Holy Sites, monitoring derogatory media misrepresentations, and promoting education for mutual respect in schools. The three main speakers at the conference, representing their respective faiths, were Patriarch Michel Sabah, Latin Patriarchate; Salah Zuhayka, Assistant Secretary of the Waqf; and Rabbi David Rosen, President of the World Conference on Religion and Peace.

The Council's trip (November 4-8) was facilitated by Secretary Rice and Ambassador Tony Hall. The inter-religious assemblage met with Senators and Representatives hosted by Senator Tom Coburn and Congressman Frank Wolf throughout the week. Ambassador Hall indicated that Senator Lieberman and others were rallying behind the Council. American religious leaders have high hopes as well, like Reverend Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "It is my hope that the Council will not only draw us to a continued commitment to pray for peace in the Holy Land, but to break down the walls that divide us within the U.S."

The Council's role in actively intervening is still unclear, but its response to the Mugrhabi Gate crisis, in mid October, may be an early indication. The Mugrhabi Gate has been engulfed in controversy since its initial excavation. The new entrance to the Temple Mount may contain archaeological evidence from the time of the Second Temple. The first excavation was ill-timed and erupted into a considerable distraction from the Olmert-Abbas peace talks. The Israeli Government almost blundered again by reopening construction with the fragile peace talks only a month away. The Council used its declared jurisdiction on matters concerning Holy Sites, and notified the Israeli government, asking to forestall the excavation until it had been comprehensively evaluated and advised upon. Excavation has been stopped.

Peace talks in Annapolis began yesterday, and will continue through Wednesday, November 28. Lengthy documents with statutes, protocols, and declarations may satisfy Abbas, Olmert, and their constituents, but the Palestinian and Israeli people need to believe that real peace is possible. If the November peace talks yield promises by leaders disconnected from the people, a 2006 Gaza Strip election "remix" could potentially undermine the credibility of Abbas and the Fatah Party. If the people are to support the resolutions of the November negotiations, whatever they may be, the Council may be an important agent to lend the proposals credibility and engender trust.

Salah Zuhayka, Assistant Secretary of the Waqf, underscored the Council's role as not one of policy making, but of providing leg supports for the shaky negotiation table in Annapolis. To him, the meeting signified, "Building trust among each other, building understanding, building a relationship."

National security advisor Stephen Hadley and Secretary Rice will continue to frequent the Middle East, but it may be the Sheikhs, Rabbis, and Bishops who will have better luck. It could be their voices that will be heard at this crucial moment and help bring about an enduring peace.

Rabbi David Rosen concluded the conference, "We are here to say no political solution can work without the religious dimension. To ignore the problem is to guarantee failure."

Zachary Bell

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000650.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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