In Spain, Rabbis, Imams Turn the Other Cheek for Peace

Conference organizer: Rabbis were asked not to react to political comments by Muslim speakers.

SEVILLE, Spain - Only a thin tree separated the rabbis wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries from the imams kneeling on mats. The sounds of the morning prayers on both sides of the tree mingled yesterday as the spiritual leaders took part in the Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace.

The conference is a mix of friendly, if seemingly unlikely, interaction in the hallways, lobby and dining room, and occasional angry and confrontational reactions in the conference rooms themselves. However, the participants appeared intent on not causing the conference to fall apart, even when they were offended by comments made by colleagues from a different religion.

For instance, a few Muslim religious leaders walked out of Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger's speech at Sunday's opening ceremony. But Muslim leader Rayan Kamal said they decided not to do so as an obtrusive protest, because "we didn't want to disrupt the ceremony."

"The rabbi deviated from the rules of politeness and rebuked the Muslims," Kamal said. "Who is he to admonish us, the Muslims, as though we were responsible for the acts of Osama bin Laden - Rabbi Metzger spoke to us arrogantly, from on high."

In another incident, a discussion intended to focus on family in the modern era became the site of Muslim speeches against the Israeli occupation and the suffering of the Palestinian people. "How can you discuss family issues when Palestinians can't maintain their families because of the occupation?" a young imam from the Gaza Strip said.

Some 20 imams from Gaza and the West Bank attended the conference, headed by Sheikh Falouji, one of Hamas' founders who withdrew from the organization in 1996 and has served as a Palestinian Authority minister. The Palestinian imams were among the 72 Muslim clerics and 72 rabbis taking part in the three-day conference, which is sponsored by the Paris-based peace foundation Hommes de Parole.

A conference organizer said the rabbis had been asked not to react to political comments made by Muslim speakers. He added that several members of the Palestinian delegation were young imams from Gaza interested in creating a crisis atmosphere by introducing political topics into the parley.

Nonetheless, Falouji said: "Hamas is prepared to hold a dialogue with the participation of Jewish and Muslim religious leaders." He said he wants Hamas to pay attention to what is said at the conference, "and learn how to save ourselves from those who are holding on to violence."

In the open spaces of the hotel on the outskirts of Seville, rabbis in black coats and hats mingled freely with Muslim clerics in cloaks and turbans. A rabbi from Brussels tried to convince a cleric from Indonesia that he was working hard to bring Jews and Muslims closer together in Belgium. The mufti of Britain offered a cup of coffee to the chief rabbi of Austria. An Al-Jazeera journalist took a picture of the chief rabbi of Israel, and an imam from Gaza tried his English out on a rabbi from London.

Although the imams and rabbis were willing to engage in dialogue with one another, the rabbis did not show the same tolerance toward colleagues of the same faith - Reform rabbis.

The Israeli chief rabbinate told conference organizers it would participate only if no Reform rabbis were invited.

"Many Orthodox rabbis present here would not have come had they known that Reform rabbis would participate," a conference organizer said. "The imams would also not have been prepared to sit around a table with Reform rabbis who support same-sex marriage."