The “imams and rabbis for peace” conference will bring together 150 leaders of the two faiths, allowing them a unique opportunity to meet face-to-face.
It promises to be much more than a mere talking shop. Speaking before tonight’s opening ceremony, a British Muslim delegate called for the “naming and shaming” of extremists.
Dr Abduljalil Sajid, a senior figure in the Muslim Council of Britain, said he hoped the conference would demonstrate that “99.9 per cent of Muslims, along with 99.9 per cent of Jews” favoured peaceful co-existence.
The organisers are seeking to “create dialogue and an enduring partnership between Islam and Judaism”, promoting personal friendships and joint initiatives.
Alain Michel is the founder and president of the Paris-based peace foundation, Hommes de Parole (Men of Their Word), which is staging the conference.
He said: “A lot of imams and rabbis never get the chance to meet and work with each other, though there are many initiatives between Islam and Christianity, and Judaism and Christianity.”
The aim was to provide a unique forum for inter-religious discussion, in which an influential gathering could demonstrate its mutual opposition to violence, Islamophobia and anti-semitism.
The chief rabbis of Austria, Brussels, Bulgaria and Denmark are among Jewish religious leaders taking part, while a strong contingent from Israel includes the chief rabbi of Haifa and prominent members of the High Rabbinical court of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Joseph Sitruk, the chief rabbi of France, said: “The assembly is an important moment because it carries hope and freedom for a disillusioned world.”
During the conference, Dr Sajid, who is also the imam of Brighton, will chair a session in which imams and rabbis will study values common to both religions.
He said: “We should stand shoulder to shoulder to name and shame the tiny minority of agitators and extremists within our own communities and stress our respect for the sanctity of life.”
Dr Sajid said he had encountered the militant north London cleric Abu Hamza in the late 1980s, before Hamza went to fight with the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and became concerned about his views.
“Hamza was staying at our mosque while studying in Brighton,” he said. “When you see someone day in, day out, you quickly see what they are like. I alerted the authorities but no one would listen because he had not actually done anything.”
Dr Sajid said the views of mainstream religious leaders were not heard. “That leaves a tiny minority of troublemakers to dominate headlines and cause scare-mongering coverage that frightens people.”
He said he was prepared to meet “obnoxious people” and confront their views. “We have to start somewhere.”
Jan. 3, 2005
Colin Randall in Paris