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Religious Leaders Launch New Effort to Resolve Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

An independent group of Palestinian and Israeli religious leaders, meeting in Washington, has launched an initiative to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The group says it hopes to counter extremism by facilitating dialogue among the region's moderate voices. Speaking Wednesday at a Washington news conference, members of the group, called the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, said they are working closely with the political leaders of Israel and the Palestinian authority to support current peace initiatives. VOA's Mohamed Elshinnawi prepared this report.

Spokesmen for the newly-formed coalition of Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders say a key element of their plan to strengthen the Middle East peace process is creating an environment of mutual respect. They say religious leaders from the three faiths have a critical role to play in building public support for ongoing peace negotiations. Rabbi David Rosen is a member of the Israeli delegation:

"One of the reasons that peace processes have not succeeded in the past is their failing to engage the religious leaderships constructively. And if you do not engage the moderate voices, then you're actually leaving the public space exposed for the extremists to assume it. Therefore that is a crucial facilitation of that religious support for peace initiatives," he said.

The senior Palestinian and Israeli religious leaders say another important step in helping people to live together in peace is to establish agencies to monitor the news media for derogatory or inflammatory depictions of religious groups, and to publicly condemn such distortions when they occur. But the most challenging problem, the leaders say, is finding an acceptable compromise on Jerusalem, a holy city for the three religions and a recurring flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Patriarch Michel Saba, representing Palestinian Christians, believes Jerusalem is key to a peaceful settlement:

"We have agreed to reflect on the future status of Jerusalem, because Jerusalem is a holy city, it is a holy place and it is a big problem for political agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. It needs reflections, but nothing is impossible, it can have a solution. Every one can have his place in Jerusalem: the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims," he said.

And Salah Zuhayka, Assistant Secretary of Islamic Endowments for the Palestinian Authority, says that in concert with the planned Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, a few weeks from now, the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land hopes it can serve as a new platform for the region's moderate voices:

"For us as Palestinians it is a really an important step to bridge the gap between us and the Israelis. It is really also a strong failure to extremism and fanatics who do not want to see those three religions setting together and dealing with each other," he said.

Members of the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land met last month with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who endorsed their efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace.