Can Religion Improve Peace Prospects in the Middle East?

Article excerpt

For some 60 years, attempts to craft a lasting peace for the Holy Land have fallen woefully short. As a new round of Israeli- Palestinian talks gets under way, some leaders from the region are insisting that it's time to include a religious dimension in the peace process.

It is the Holy Land, after all, they say, with history and sites sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The majority on both sides recognize that the conflict is over territory and self- determination, not religion. Yet religious traditions are central to both peoples' identities and are invoked to justify nationalist claims.

"It's a territorial conflict between peoples whose identities are deeply nurtured by a religious history, culture, and mind-set," says Rabbi David Rosen, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. "That mind-set can be used to promote a constructive engagement with the other community, or to exacerbate alienation, self-righteousness, and demonization of the other."

In a landmark event just before last month's summit in Annapolis, Md., the highest-ranking Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders in the Holy Land took a joint public stand in favor of constructive engagement.

After a meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Jerusalem, Israel's chief rabbis; the Muslim sheikhs in charge of the sharia courts and Jerusalem's holy sites; and local Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican leaders traveled to Washington.

As delegates of the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, they announced a six-point plan to use their positions of leadership "to prevent religion being used as a source of conflict, and to serve the goals of a just and comprehensive peace and reconciliation."

Their first steps will be to create a "hot line" to address issues of protection of and access to holy sites, and new mechanisms to monitor the media for derogatory representations of any religion. They've agreed to reflect together on the future of Jerusalem, support the designation of the Old City as a World Heritage Site, and seek "a common vision" for the city.

The leaders plan an education initiative to promote mutual respect in schools and the media. And they promise to press the message in their own communities that differences should be addressed through dialogue rather than violence. Finally, the council aims to consult with political leaders on the peace process.

Religious vacuum filled by extremists

According to the clerics and experts in conflict resolution, one of the great shortcomings of past peace initiatives has been the failure to tap into religious sensibilities during negotiations.

"It is ironic that in all the previous agreements negotiated on the future of the Holy Land there were no representatives of religious leaders," says Muhammad Abu Nimer, a conflict resolution specialist who teaches at American University in Washington. "The religious dimension is fundamental to the solution."

That failure has had significant consequences, some argue, sending a message to the fervent believers in both communities that secularists were in charge of the process and their interests were not being taken into consideration.

"On the lawn of the White House in 1993, when the famous handshake took place with Arafat and Rabin, there was no identifiable religious figure present," Rabbi Rosen says. "By ignoring the religious voice, a vacuum was created that could be filled by the extremists."

A Jewish extremist killed Prime MinA-ister Rabin two years later, and Palestinian suicide bombing began in earnest.

"They all thought they were doing God's bidding because they felt the peace process was against God's will," Rosen adds. "If you think the way to deal with extremist abuse of religion is to ignore religion, you are inviting that extremist religion to occupy center stage. …