There’s one thing you have to say about the World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace — when they disagree about something, they don’t mind saying so. The final session of their third conference in Paris on Wednesday was the stage for an exchange of dramatic charges and counter-charges abut the perennial problem of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The atmosphere was tense in the UNESCO conference room where the 3-day session took place and several participants spoke up to calm down their more agitated colleagues. Since this was the only session the media was allowed to witness, it would have been easy to conclude that the imams and rabbis needed to seek peace among themselves first before preaching it to others. (Photo: An imam in Berlin, 3 Aug 2007/Fabrizio Bensch)
But there were actions that spoke louder than words in the hall. Several participants were frowning as the finger-pointing progressed. Others turned to the nearest participant of the other faith to chat. At one point, a rabbi in his Hasidic black hat and coat walked over to an imam wearing a karakul hat, embraced him warmly and sat down for a lively talk. A television camera would have had a field day contrasting the words and the deeds in evidence there. (Photo: A rabbi in Debent, Russia, 17 Sept 2007/Thomas Peter)
At the news conference ending the session, the organiser Alain Michel announced there had not been enough time to agree on a final resolution — a sign of a serious disagreement, as any reporter who has covered summit meetings could tell you. But he proceeded to say the meeting had agreed to set up a steering committee that would work out joint statements whenever there were major acts of violence in the name of religion. Names of the committee members were read out and all seemed to be satisfied that this was progress. Here is my news report about the meeting and here’s the official programme.
When it came to question time, I couldn’t help asking how they expected us to think of them as imams and rabbis for peace when they fought so much during the debate. Several got up to defend the meeting, saying they had made progress and it was only natural that there should be tension when it came to Israel and Palestine. Several participants came up to me afterwards, during the lunch, to give their view on why the meeting was more constructive than it seemed to be. (Photo: Yahya Hendi)
The question elicited several nice quotes. “The clash of ideas is the sound of freedom,” said Yahya Hendi, the Palestinian-born Muslim chaplain at Georgetown, a Catholic university in Washington. “Blunt talk is not against the process, it’s part of the process,”said Rabbi Tsion Cohen of Shaar-HaNegev in Israel, who added that his community was near Gaza and often got hit by missiles from there.