Imams In Spain Say Muslims And Jews Must Confront Extremism

SEVILLE, Spain, March 23 — Scores of rabbis and imams gathered here this week to discuss what they called a deepening crisis in relations between Muslims and Jews, saying religious leaders must confront religious extremism and the failure to make meaningful progress on the conflict in the Middle East. The meeting did not produce any sweeping agreements, but it was nonetheless heralded by many participants as a breakthrough, bringing together religious leaders who have the potential to bridge the divisions between Muslims and Jews, but who rarely interact. Leaders who seldom cross paths despite living only minutes apart, like ultra-Orthodox rabbis from Israel and former members of the radical Palestinian group Hamas, spent four days in a hotel here sitting in the same rooms, eating the same meals and occasionally talking, guardedly at first, but increasingly freely as the conference progressed. You have some of the most fundamentalist people from both religions here, said Eliezer Simcha Weisz, a rabbi in Emek Hefer, Israel. These people would never sit together in Israel. The meeting, organized by the French foundation Hommes de Parole, which promotes dialogue between conflicting groups, included hostile exchanges and pointed arguments about terrorism, Israeli settlements and claims to Jerusalem. But it also led to some uninhibited displays of camaraderie, like rabbis and imams singing and dancing together during an impromptu musical performance in the hotel lobby near midnight. But sporadic displays of conviviality did not temper the underlying tension. At the opening ceremony on Sunday, the chief rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, noting that most Muslims are moderates, asked the imams in the audience: Why don’t you speak when Bin Laden invokes your religion to justify terrorism? Why don’t you express yourselves in a loud voice? Even discussions as seemingly innocuous as the virtues of peace often turned into arguments. No one can speak about peace while there is occupation, said Imad al-Falouji, a former Hamas member and one of the most prominent imams in Gaza, referring to the Israeli presence in the West Bank. But the participants appeared to agree broadly that tensions between Muslims and Jews had grown worse in recent years in part because religious leaders had lost their voice, allowing politicians, diplomats and, most worrisome, extremists to dictate relations between the two religions. Religion has been misused by the fundamentalists, who have taken over religion and made us hostages, said Andr_ Azoulay, a Jew from Morocco who is a senior adviser to King Mohammed VI. They could do so because we were silent. Rabbi Daniel Sperber, president of the Institute for Advanced Torah Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, said that religious leaders had many shared beliefs and might be able to reach agreements where diplomats had failed. We haven’t even begun to tap the resources of the religious world, he said. This is the first stage, trying to bring people together to establish some sort of common agenda. At the conclusion of the conference on Wednesday, the leaders issued a joint communiqu_ denouncing the use of religion to justify violence and urging respect for religious symbols, an apparent response to the recent protests of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The declaration also included an implicit condemnation of statements from Hamas and the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calling for the destruction of Israel. We condemn any incitement against a faith or people, let alone any call for their elimination, and we urge authorities to do likewise, the statement said. But the real value of the conference, most participants said, was in the informal meetings that took place in the hallways and at the dinner tables, allowing participants to put faces on people often portrayed as the enemy back home. Ashour Kullab, a Muslim leader from Gaza who had never spoken with a rabbi before coming here, said he spoke with two rabbis on the first morning of the conference. There were no problems with them, he said. They listened and I listened. They are my friends now. The encounter, he said, could never have happened in the Gaza Strip, where extremists do not tolerate friendships with Jews. If I go with them in the streets in Gaza, I might get shot, he said. The group first met last year in Brussels. In bringing the conference to Seville this year, organizers hoped to recapture some of the relative harmony that is said to have governed Muslim-Jewish relations here during the Middle Ages, when Spain was a Muslim-controlled territory called Al Andalus. That sense of cooperation seemed to find its way into many discussions. During a coffee break early in the conference, Stuart Altshuler, a rabbi from Mission Viejo, Calif., got into an angry dispute with Mr. Falouji, the imam from Gaza, over the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But the two made up shortly after, saying they had benefited from the exchange. I was able to meet with Falouji from Gaza, Rabbi Altshuler said the next day. I’ve dreamed of a chance to do that.