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Bridges of dialogue, discovery and respect: the Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace

Meeting from March 20 through 22nd, a group of 150 Jewish Rabbis and Islamic Imams gathered in Seville, Spain for dialogue and collaborative action planning, with the theme of "Islam and Judaism as instruments of peace - recognition and respect of others." Two of the participants, Co-Executive Directors of Children of Abraham, share their personal experiences of the conference, its conflicts, means, and results.

By Gul Rukh Rahman and Ari Alexander

Seville - Incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have seen an increase in the last few years around the globe. The deteriorating relationship between Muslims and Jews has brought about the necessity to bring religious leaders together to find solutions to the hatred and misunderstanding that exist between the two communities. As the primary organization dedicated to increasing Muslim-Jewish dialogue worldwide, we were honoured to represent Children of Abraham at the Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace in Seville, Spain last week.

Many of us see the religious leaders as an obstacle to improved Muslim-Jewish relations, but the organizers of the conference from Hommes de Parole — a French Foundation that promotes dialogue and peaceful resolution between conflicting parties– know that the — imams and rabbis must be brought into the action at this early stage. We applaud their efforts to bring the crisis in Muslim-Jewish relations away from the margins towards the power centres of the respective communities.

The Congress brought together rabbis and imams from all over Africa and Europe, as well as from North America and Israel/Palestine. Noticeably absent were Muslim participants from the Persian Gulf and Asia. Moreover, the decision by the organizers not to invite female rabbis or female Muslim religious scholars made the gathering something of a ‘bearded men’s club’. Nevertheless, the gathering of these men was a historic achievement and should be recognized as such. The imams and rabbis in attendance proved to the world that it is possible to bring these two communities together to begin the process for us to rejoice in our similarities and learn from our differences. One Moroccan-born Israeli rabbi literally sang through the night with his Moroccan Muslim colleagues in a profound example of the celebration of Muslim-Jewish co-existence.

Not surprisingly, one of the major sources of tension in Seville was voiced by the delegation of twenty Palestinians from Gaza – who pleaded with their peers to put the issue of Palestine – specifically the economic hardships they currently face – on the top of the agenda. Shaking heads and rolling eyes could be seen around the room by the men in black hats – many of whom clearly agreed to come to Seville with the confidence that it would be a gathering to speak only about matters of religion.

Our view in Children of Abraham is that a middle road must be found for Muslim-Jewish dialogue whereby the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is neither ignored nor dominant. It is clearly the central source of tension in contemporary Muslim-Jewish relations. However, just as most Muslims have their passion for Palestine and most Jews have their passion for Israel, so we all have a complex religious identity that is severely skewed in the conversations between our two communities that focus solely on the political situation in Israel/Palestine. A tremendous amount of frustration was murmured in a clear display that participants had very different reasons for coming together. Without a strong moderator to keep plenary sessions focused, the choice was made to use an ‘Open Space’ format to allow participants to take ownership of the agenda by creating and moderating their own workshops on a wide array of topics.

There was a focus on the importance of youth oriented programs in many speeches, but there were no concrete examples cited to inspire confidence in the participants that such dialogue had the chance of extending to the grassroots. The organizers, however, were kind enough to sponsor two students from Children of Abraham – one from Jakarta and the other from Tehran – both of whom had no imams in attendance. Meeting Jews for the first time in their lives, and even taking personal risks by communicating openly with Israeli rabbis, these students were able to use the coffee breaks to inspire the religious leaders with their stories of personal transformation through dialogue with Jewish peers. Their intention to write articles in the Indonesian and Farsi press in the coming days about the importance of Muslim-Jewish dialogue is precisely the kind of action needed to ensure that what happened in Seville does not remain in Seville.

At the end of the conference on Wednesday, the leaders issued a joint statement denouncing the use of religion to justify violence and urging respect for religious symbols — an apparent response to the recent protests against cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. We took a short break at one point and saw the segment on Al-Jazeera about the Congress in our hotel rooms – an exciting development and a sharp contrast to the near total absence of US media coverage. But most viewers at home were probably looking at this Congress with the same scepticism that they viewed the Arab Summit in Khartoum these past few days. We have all come to expect lofty words and little action from the gatherings of our leaders. We confess that we largely shared this concern while in Seville.

But let us be grounded in reality. The gulf between our two communities worldwide is enormous. And this will not change overnight. The fact that such a gathering of prominent religious personalities took place with the level of interpersonal comfort and mutual commitment to dialogue that we witnessed, provides an essential boost of support for those of us who do this work full-time.

Let us all do our part in the coming year to build bridges of dialogue, discovery and respect.

* Ms.Gul Rukh Rahman and Mr. Ari Alexander are the Co-Executive Directors of Children of Abraham (www.children-of-abraham.org), an international organization dedicated to fostering opportunities for Muslim and Jewish teenagers in more than 30 countries around the world to interact with each other.

Source: Common Ground News Service, March 30, 2006.

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