BRUSSELS – A few minutes before Europe observed three minutes of silence last Wednesday in memory of the tsunami victims, Jewish and Muslim clergy who had convened at Egmont Palace decided to join them. Two days earlier, the clergy had come together to seek means of greater involvement for religion in quietening the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At exactly noon, all the participants got to their feet around the tables in the magnificent conference hall. Rabbis and imams, along with several Christian clerics, stood side by side and bowed their heads in utter silence.
Suddenly, Rabbi Shlomo Chelouche, the chief rabbi of Haifa, recited a short prayer for the victims. When he finished, all those present said “amen.”
Then Zimer Omar Farouk Turan, the former mufti of Istanbul, recited verses from the Koran. No sooner did he finish than Rabbi Yosef Azran, chief rabbi of Rishon Letzion, chanted a psalm, his voice choked with tears. When the moments of silence were over, the hundreds of clergy in the room remained standing. Some wiped away a tear.
“This proves that rabbis and imams can work together for a common goal,” said Rabbi Rene Sirat, the former chief rabbi of France. “In all my years as a rabbi, I never experienced a moment like this,” Sirat added, invoking the traditional Jewish blessing for reaching a special milestone.
Hojat al-Islam Muhammad Mehatali, a senior Iranian cleric, looked at his colleagues in amazement. “These moments were the cream of the whole conference,” he said. “Where have you ever seen Muslims and Jews praying as if they were one family?”
There was no shortage of moving moments during the unprecedented “Rabbis and Imams for Peace” conference, which was sponsored by the organization Hommes de Parole. The confrence hosted more than 200 rabbis and imams as well as Christian clergy from all over the world to convey the message that religion does not send people out to kill and that anyone who takes a life in the name of religion transgresses a commandment of God.
The conference concluded on Friday with a pledge that the Jewish and Muslim clerics would work to put an end to bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians and would struggle with all their might against hatred, ignorance and extremism on both sides. When the declaration was read, the participants got to their feet and applauded.
The delegates grew close during the conference. Rabbis who had never met an imam spoke freely with them during the meetings. At first, they ate at separate tables – Jews here, Muslims there, eyeing each other suspiciously. A day later they had moved closer; a day after that, they were sitting together and even taking pictures arm in arm.
By Wednesday, they were praising each other’s faith. “We are all the children of one father – Abraham the Patriarch,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron.
Sheikh Talal Sidr of Hebron moved the audience when he called on them to visit every mosque and synagogue to preach peace and dignity. “This is the divine commandment; we must educate a generation to peace and love,” he said.
“How is it that every Jewish prayer ends with the word peace and every Muslim prayer ends with the word peace and we are killing each other?” asked Sheikh Abdul Jalil Sajid, the imam of Brighton, England.
Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, chief rabbi of Ramat Gan and a leading opponent of disengagement, surprised the audience with his conciliatory tone. “Judaism and Islam have a common task,” he said, “to bring a message to the whole world. Don’t we all have one father? So why should we hurt each other?”
The imams represented most of the countries of Africa and Asia, dressed in traditional robes and head coverings in a rainbow of colors. The former president of Indonesia, Abdul Rahman Wahid, canceled his participation because of the tsunami damage to his country.
“The extremists have taken God hostage,” said Andre Azoulay, adviser to the king of Morocco. “Unfortunately they are stronger than the Jewish and Muslim people of peace.” Participants made great efforts to distance themselves from the horrors perpetrated by fanatics in the name of God.
Paramount during the conference was the clergy’s desire to participate in the political process. Several noted that without religious legitimization, no political agreement will last and realizing that if they do not rein in the extremists, the latter might touch off a powder keg of religious hatred that will ignite the whole region.
At the end of the conference, participants held hands and sang Haveinu Shalom Aleichem, a Hebrew song of peace. “We made history,” said Alain Michel, a French Christian and president of Hommes de Parole.