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
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
"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
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
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