Can religion improve peace prospects in the Middle East?

A council of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders devised a six-point plan to help bring about reconciliation.

For some 60 years, attempts to craft a lasting peace for the Holy Land have fallen woefully short. As a new round of Israeli-Palestinian talks gets under way, some leaders from the region are insisting that it's time to include a religious dimension in the peace process.

It is the Holy Land, after all, they say, with history and sites sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The majority on both sides recognize that the conflict is over territory and self-determination, not religion. Yet religious traditions are central to both peoples' identities and are invoked to justify nationalist claims.

"It's a territorial conflict between peoples whose identities are deeply nurtured by a religious history, culture, and mind-set," says Rabbi David Rosen, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. "That mind-set can be used to promote a constructive engagement with the other community, or to exacerbate alienation, self-righteousness, and demonization of the other."

In a landmark event just before last month's summit in Annapolis, Md., the highest-ranking Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders in the Holy Land took a joint public stand in favor of constructive engagement.

After a meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Jerusalem, Israel's chief rabbis; the Muslim sheikhs in charge of the sharia courts and Jerusalem's holy sites; and local Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican leaders traveled to Washington.

As delegates of the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, they announced a six-point plan to use their positions of leadership "to prevent religion being used as a source of conflict, and to serve the goals of a just and comprehensive peace and reconciliation."

Their first steps will be to create a "hot line" to address issues of protection of and access to holy sites, and new mechanisms to monitor the media for derogatory representations of any religion. They've agreed to reflect together on the future of Jerusalem, support the designation of the Old City as a World Heritage Site, and seek "a common vision" for the city.

The leaders plan an education initiative to promote mutual respect in schools and the media. And they promise to press the message in their own communities that differences should be addressed through dialogue rather than violence. Finally, the council aims to consult with political leaders on the peace process.

Religious vacuum filled by extremists

According to the clerics and experts in conflict resolution, one of the great shortcomings of past peace initiatives has been the failure to tap into religious sensibilities during negotiations.

"It is ironic that in all the previous agreements negotiated on the future of the Holy Land there were no representatives of religious leaders," says Muhammad Abu Nimer, a conflict resolution specialist who teaches at American University in Washington. "The religious dimension is fundamental to the solution."

That failure has had significant consequences, some argue, sending a message to the fervent believers in both communities that secularists were in charge of the process and their interests were not being taken into consideration.

"On the lawn of the White House in 1993, when the famous handshake took place with Arafat and Rabin, there was no identifiable religious figure present," Rabbi Rosen says. "By ignoring the religious voice, a vacuum was created that could be filled by the extremists."

A Jewish extremist killed Prime Min­ister Rabin two years later, and Palestinian suicide bombing began in earnest.

"They all thought they were doing God's bidding because they felt the peace process was against God's will," Rosen adds. "If you think the way to deal with extremist abuse of religion is to ignore religion, you are inviting that extremist religion to occupy center stage."

Political leaders have shied from dealing with religion partly because they view it as playing a negative role in the conflict. And partly, Dr. Abu Nimer says, because the norms of international politics have been to separate religion from politics and therefore from negotiations.

"Israeli and Palestinian national leaders, as well as American diplomats, are conditioned to see religion as a problem rather than a resource for peace-­building," says Yehezkel Landau, who was active in interfaith efforts in the Holy Land and now teaches at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. "They let the zealots monopolize it in the public arena rather than call upon the moderate and pragmatic leaders to have a public role."

But to play a role, religious leaders must be willing to speak out and perhaps pay a price, the experts say. In the past, many have been unwilling to do so.

According to Forward, the American Jewish weekly, the council's statement represents the first time Israel's chief rabbis have spoken of ending the occupation of the West Bank. It's the first time top Muslim clerics have agreed to work with Israelis on the peace process.

The very existence of the council constitutes a major milestone.

The historic breakthrough occurred in Alexandria, Egypt, in 2002, following 9/11. Thanks to then-Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, the first Middle East interfaith summit of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders took place at Al-Azhar, the world's chief Islamic learning center. The group issued the Alexandria Declaration, proclaiming their commitment to ending the violence.

But it was a gathering of individuals, not institutions, Rosen explains, and as individuals retired or changed positions, the continuity of the effort faltered.

Still, the meeting spurred other developments. A new World Congress of Imams and Rabbis has met twice, and will have a third meeting in 2008. Christians and Muslims in Nigeria drew on the principles of the declaration to reach their own peace agreement. And the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, formed in 2005, is now institutionalizing the effort begun in Alexandria.

"If the council follows through on its six points, it could make a vital contribution to the negotiations and to reconciliation," says Mr. Landau. "They are in a position to say that making peace with adversaries is a religious and moral imperative, not just a political expediency."

Clerics of the three faiths have a greater desire to be engaged because they recognize that their communities are jeopardized by the rise of extremism, says Rosen, an adviser to the chief rabbis.

Ads, fact-finding missions might help

Others experienced in peace efforts in the Holy Land say that it's important the leaders are coming together in this way, but there are more visible steps to take.

"I'd like to see religious leadership engage in joint activities that have a profound spiritual and emotional impact on both sides – through the use of ritual and teaching and ethical gestures to each community," says Marc Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

To compete with the voices of religious extremists, Dr. Gopin adds, they should mount sophisticated advertising campaigns that make religious justifications for the three religions moving forward together, and for making peace.

Abu Nimer points to such steps as using their status to promote human rights, or undertaking fact-finding missions to places like Gaza. One constraint on top Jewish and Muslim leaders: They are political appointees, and if their governments fail to support the peace process, it may be difficult for them to act. (The Palestinian president and Israeli prime minister currently back the council.)

"The religious leaders have limitless areas of joint work – if they are willing to take the risk," Abu Nimer says. "We now probably have a real window of optimism [after Annapolis]," but people want concrete change.

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