- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

JERUSALEM The discussions were so potentially controversial and fragile that the participants met late at night in a Jerusalem hotel. They arrived under the cover of darkness to avoid the criticism they might have faced for having arrived at all.

The culmination came in a secure seaside palace in Alexandria, Egypt, where 15 delegates were coaxed by Anglican Church officials into reaching and revealing their hard-fought statement. Only nine paragraphs long, its core message might seem self-evident:

"According to our faith traditions, killing innocents in the name of God is a desecration of his Holy Name and defames religion in the world."

Coming from Israeli and Palestinian clerics Jewish, Muslim and Christian amid intense fighting among their people, even this simple statement is a milestone. It's meant to be a first step in a series of meetings aimed at ending the Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.

The First Alexandria Declaration of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land, as it was named when signed Jan. 21, was promoted by Britain's Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and co-hosted by Egyptian Sheik Mohammed Sayeed Tantawi, one of the most prominent figures in Islam. It was backed by institutions as diverse as three churches in Atlanta and the Egyptian government.

It was also supported by both Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, making it perhaps their only common ground since the fighting began.

At the same time, the statement and the varied interpretations by even those Israelis and Palestinians who authored it, highlight a tragic irony. The bloodshed in the Holy Land is no more likely to be solved with a religious solution than it has been by the many attempts at a political solution.

On a key point, participants disagree over the definition of "killing innocents," each maintaining that their side is only acting in self-defense.

The declaration received little media coverage and was viewed skeptically by the public. Despite their approval, Mr. Arafat and Mr. Sharon have only intensified the conflict in recent weeks.

"These are the real issues and the things we have to work on," said Canon Andrew White, Archbishop Carey's envoy, who organized the conference. "We were about trying to break down barriers, to stop the demonizing of the other, to call for religiously sanctioned cease-fire and establish a mechanism to continue dialogue," Mr. White said. "Religion has power. Huge power to be used negatively or positively."

The Alexandria declaration is supposed to lead to monthly follow-up meetings, starting next week and, eventually, a program for nonviolence.

The group's work will be scrutinized by Israelis and Palestinians who could easily accuse the clerics of being duped into serving the enemy's purposes.

Mr. White acknowledges the difficulties in the task ahead and bemoans how hard it is to get each side to "talk about the needs of the other."

After all, the vocabulary of religion has been central in the fighting.

Dozens of Palestinian suicide attackers have killed more than 130 Israelis. They are sent by fundamentalists who promise them, citing the Koran, a place in heaven as reward for their martyrdom.

Palestinians call the last 16 months the "Al Aqsa Intifada," referring to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. It is on the Haram Al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, which is a hilltop holy to the Jews as the Temple Mount, the site of ancient Jewish temples.

The Palestinians have day-to-day control of the site, but it is held under Israeli sovereignty and surrounded by Israeli police. The first clashes of the intifada, or uprising, began there Sept. 29, 2000.

Meanwhile, Jewish extremists urge the forceful invasion of the mosques by the army and the construction of a new Jewish Temple. Jewish settlers, on land in the West Bank captured by Israel in 1967, quote the Old Testament for authority to hold the occupied territory.

One purpose of the Alexandria meeting was to undermine those who would use religion to bolster their extremism, which could lead to a wider conflict.

"There was a danger that the territorial conflict would turn into a religious conflict," said Rabbi David Rosen from Israel, a participant in the Alexandria meeting. He is director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

Informal meetings began last fall in Jerusalem, leading to the Alexandria conference. Among the 15 delegates were Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, one of the two chief rabbis in the Israeli government; Rabbi Michael Melchior, deputy foreign minister and David Brodman, the chief rabbi of the Israeli town of Savion.

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