Religious leaders declare hope for Mideast, urge strong U.S. role

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Leaders of 29 national Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations issued a joint call for the Bush administration and the new Congress to make Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace a top foreign policy priority.

Peace is “an essential of faith” in all three religious traditions, they said.

They asked U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to meet with them to discuss the “urgent situation” in the Middle East and the need for “active, fair and firm leadership by the United States” to promote a comprehensive peace in the region.

In a consensus statement and a letter to Rice, both dated Dec. 12 and released Dec. 14, the leaders expressed the belief that the current crisis can be turned into an opportunity for change and that the current Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire offers hope for restarting negotiations.

“The crisis in Gaza and the war in Lebanon and northern Israel remind us that the status quo in the region is unstable and untenable,” they said in the seven-page statement. “Military action will not resolve the conflict.”

“The only authentic way forward is a negotiated settlement built on difficult, but realistic, compromises and security arrangements with international guarantees,” they added. “The path to peace requires a rejection of violence and an embrace of dialogue.”

Catholic signatories on the letter and statement were Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore; Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, recently retired archbishop of Washington; and Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Rev. Michael E. Livingston, president of the National Council of Churches, and leaders of 12 Orthodox or Protestant denominations or national organizations also signed the letter and statement.

Among the 12 Jewish signatories were Rabbi Harry K. Danziger, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The seven Muslim signatories included Sayyid Muhammad Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances, and Naim Baig, secretary-general of the Islamic Circle of North America.

The leaders in December 2003 formed the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East and urged the United States to exercise leadership at the highest levels and take concrete steps to press for peace in the region.

“We have been disappointed that the United States did not more actively pursue the ‘road map’ for peace which we felt held great promise,” the consensus statement said. “While much has changed since December 2003, our fundamental call for the United States to more fully engage in the work for a two-state solution to the conflict has not.”

More than half of the consensus statement was devoted to specific recommendations to the United States regarding its own role in peace-building and how it should relate to Palestinian leaders, Israel and the Arab states to encourage constructive contributions to peace on their part.

The religious leaders called on the United States to collaborate with the European Union, Russia and the United Nations “to create conditions that bring about serious negotiations on a two-state solution” of Israel and Palestine enjoying sovereignty and security.

They asked the government to build on the principles and practical ideas of earlier peace initiatives but also to explore bold new initiatives that could help bring the parties to negotiated solutions.

They called on the United States to help rebuild Lebanon’s civil infrastructure in the wake of the recent widespread bombing by Israel in retaliation for Hezbollah attacks from Lebanon into Israel.

In addition to encouraging a series of concrete peace initiatives by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, they said the United States should undertake diplomatic efforts to restart peace negotiations between Israel and Syria and between Israel and Lebanon.

At a conference in September at which the consensus statement was developed, Cardinal McCarrick said, “We gather at a time of crisis in the Middle East. But times of crisis can also become opportunities for change.”

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, immediate past vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, said, “We know how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end. There will be two states living side by side in peace with mutually acceptable arrangements for sharing Jerusalem and resolving the issue of refugees. The only question is how many more Israelis and Palestinians will die before this vision is realized.”

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