Palestinian Islamic Leaders Want to Be 'Force for Peace'

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Some 30 Palestinian Islamic religious leaders from the West Bank and Gaza Strip said they want to be a "force for peace." They made the comment at a summit in Cairo this week, an Anglican religious leader said on Wednesday.

This week's three-day summit continued a discussion that began in 2002, when representatives of Islam, Judaism and Christianity convened in Egypt and issued a joint declaration committing themselves to ending violence, bloodshed, incitement, hatred, and misrepresentation.

In that so-called "Alexandria declaration," the religious leaders pledged to continue a joint quest for "a just peace."

This week's meeting of high-level Palestinian Islamic leaders was convened by Canon Andrew White, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Special Representative to the Alexandria process.

White described the meeting as "very, very positive" and said that it was the largest number of Islamic leaders that had ever attended -- some 30 leaders up from the usual seven.

"The key thing I can say is it was a very positive meeting," White said in a telephone interview. "The Islamic leaders committed themselves to work within the framework of the religious peace process [for a] just, durable peace.

"[They] very surprised that there were Jewish leaders who understood their suffering and were willing to work with them," White added.

Former Israeli deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior and Rabbi Menachem Froman were invited to meet with the group.

Melchior was unavailable to comment on the summit but an aide called the meeting "a first step" in the right direction.

According to the aide, Melchior spoke with religious leaders representing the terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad in an effort to create some dialogue between the religious leaders.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists have claimed responsibility for most of the deadly suicide bombing attacks that have claimed the lives of hundreds of Israelis during the last three years.

It was the first time for those kind of leaders to speak with an Israeli, the aide said, and some were "quite shocked" because they thought that the Israeli side was "very aggressive" and here they saw a man who is "really seeking peace."

There was talk about terror attacks and bombings in Israel.

Some of the leaders said they understood that such attacks didn't help them achieve progress but they were not willing to sign a declaration saying so; nor were they willing to be photographed with the Jewish religious leaders, Melchior's aide said.

According to White, there is a need to enfranchise spiritual leaders and to have them play a role in the peace process because they are able to influence their people.

"Most of these sheikhs and muftis were never involved in inter-faith dialogue," he said. Some were "a bit shell-shocked at how well the meeting went." They indicated that they "want to be a force for peace," he said.

According to White, the Alexandria group has the full support of the United States. American diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, are working with the group, he said.

The Alexandria summit supports the official track of the peace process, stands behind the U.S.-backed road map peace plan and wants to see it get back on track, White said.

But skeptics of the Alexandria process have said that they doubt it will provide a quick fix for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although the original declaration declared that the killing of innocent people was a desecration of God's name and a defamation of religion, one of the main Islamic backers of the Alexandria summit, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Al-Tantawi, was quoted a few months later encouraging Palestinians to continue carrying out suicide bombings.

In April 2002, three months after the declaration was made, Tantawi who is regarded a Egypt's senior Islamic figure and one of the most respected Sunni Muslim leaders in the world, referred to the Jews in a weekly sermon as "the enemies of Allah, descendants of pigs and apes." It is unclear whether he still holds those views.

See Earlier Stories:
Sheik's Remarks Mock Islamic-Anglican Agreement, Group Says (7 Nov. 2002)
No Quick Fix For Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (22 Jan. 2002)