Eliyahu McLean, 3/8/2005
From January 3-6 2005, I had the opportunity to be a part of a historic meeting, the First World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace that took place in Brussels. Hommes de Parole, an organization based in Paris and led by director Alain Michel, in cooperation with many other organizations organized the Congress.
We were about 180 participants, including 100 Jewish and Muslim religious leaders and 80 experts in the field of Jewish-Muslim cooperation, from all over the world. The Jewish religious leaders were rabbis who came from Europe and North America as well as about 30 rabbis from Israel, including chief rabbis of different cities and heads of prominent yeshivas.
The Muslim religious leaders included imams who came from Europe, the U.S., Africa and Asian countries like Indonesia and Uzbekistan. From the Middle East there were Palestinians from Jerusalem, the Galilee and the West Bank as well as from Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Iran. Christian clergy and others, including a delegation of teenage Muslim girls from France came as observers to every session.
During the three-day Congress we joined in large roundtable plenary sessions, workshops, open discussions and gala dinners together. All the sessions were translated simultaneously into English, French, Hebrew and Arabic.
At the opening session on the evening of January 3rd, there was such a feeling of excitement as we all first gathered together in Egmont Palace in Brussels.
Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, the former Chief Sefardic Rabbi of Israel, said, "when I see all of the imams and rabbis coming together, this is a message to the Creator that we are here to do your will, that is to bring peace."
Sheikh Talal Sider from Hebron said that for Jews, Muslims and Christians, the Holy Land is beloved and blessed and that our meeting together in this Congress was a blessing from God.
Dr. Ahmad Toufiq spoke on behalf of the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, who gave his support and blessings. He spoke about how Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived together peacefully for centuries in Morocco.
The Hindu swami Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said, "May God give us the courage to unite as a human family. I leave momentarily for India and Sri Lanka and I bring to them (tsunami survivors) the message that the imams and rabbis are with them."
There was extensive media coverage from European and Middle Eastern news agencies. Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari and I were interviewed by MBC, the second largest Arabic news program shown in the Arab world. I gave a full interview in Arabic, calling on Muslims everywhere to unite with the Jews as members of one family, the family of Abraham.
Each night the band 'the Voices of Fez' played live Arabic music. On the first night a Moroccan rabbi got on the stage and started singing Hebrew sacred songs with the band. On the second night, Abdel Karim al Zurba, an Imam of the Dome of the Rock, got up on the stage and moved everyone with his powerful rendition of the call to prayer.
On Tuesday morning we discussed the Judeo-Muslim heritage. Imam Sajid from England said that as Jews and Muslims living as minorities in Europe we need to combat together the twin evils of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
The rabbis responded deeply to the words of Dr. Abdul Rahman Abad from East Jerusalem when he said, "let us walk the path to peace. Instead of calling the Land Israel or Palestine, let us talk about the Holy Land. Let the Land be our mother and we its children."
In the Tuesday afternoon plenary session on acceptance of the other Rabbi Michael Melchior declared, "We will help God who makes peace in the heavens, make peace between us."
Rabbi Naftali Brawer from the office of the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom said, "Learn how to smile at those different from us and to see in the reflective smile of the other, a reflection of the Divine."
At the afternoon workshop sessions we broke small groups and discussed concrete cooperative projects. Some of the workshops were: bringing a religious dimension to the Mid-East peace process, creation of a Jewish-Muslim observatory and Abraham's Vision- a textbook for Jewish and Muslim youth weaving together a shared narrative of our stories.
At the Wednesday morning plenary session about human dignity, Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg spoke of the challenge of morality in times of war. "The Torah demands from us to see the enemy as a human being who deserves to be treated with dignity. There is no such thing as a morality of peace and a morality of war, only morality."
A special moment for everyone present was when the imams and rabbis stood silently together for three minutes in honor the victims of the tsunami in Asia. To open the 3 minutes the chief rabbi of Haifa sang El Maleh Rahamim, the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead. The former mufti of Istanbul closed by reciting verses from the Quran. Rabbi Yosef Azran, chief rabbi of Rishon Letzion spontaneously chanted a psalm. It was an emotional moment; everyone felt a sense of unity coming together in our shared humanity.
Later more of us had a chance to share in an open forum:
Rabbi Reuven Firestone from Los Angeles spoke about the need to have public celebrations together as a way to build bridges.
Sheikh Yusuf Murigu from Kenya said, "The Islamic tradition offers a model for human dignity as seen in the Quran: 'Allah says: I have made you into nations and into tribes to get to know one another.'"
Rabbi Soetendorp from Holland said, "Let us all have the courage to be Rodfei Shalom. May God give us the courage to make peace."
A sheikh from the Islamic Council of Tunis said, "Just by our meeting together we are dispelling ignorance of the other."
In the final plenary session on Wednesday we discussed how to deal with extremism within our own communities. Rabbi Yosef Hadane, Chief Rabbi of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel spoke about the need for religious leaders to explain the Torah and the Quran in a truly spiritual way that could not lead to extremism. I said we should not demonize the extremists but include them in the circle of dialogue and reach out to them with the tools found within Judaism and Islam.
The final declaration called for: political leaders to work for a peaceful solution in the Holy Land, respect for human rights, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders to devote regular sermons in their communities to the theme od reverence for all human life and the establishment of a permanent joint committee to implement these commitments.
On the first day many of the imams and rabbis, many of whom had never met one of the other, stood apart. By the end they were holding each other's arms.
At the closing session, one of the Muslim teenage girls from France spoke eloquently saying, "We thank you for what you taught us. Thanks for helping us build peace with you."
To formally close the Congress we sang together Haveinu Shalom Aleichem and held hands in a circle.
On Thursday, the final day Rabbi Albert Guigui welcomed some of us at the central synagogue of Brussels. Later at the central mosque we sat on the carpet together where the imam received us graciously.
Please refer to the Hommes de Parole website for full coverage of the event, media articles, pictures and a complete list of all the participants at the Congress.