Forging Mideast Peace. Seat Carefully

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The event in Washington was billed as a step toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, one led by Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders from the area. "It is often said that the conflict in the Holy Land is religious, and that the acts of religions are the problem," said Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, who is based in Jerusalem. "We are here to say that we are not the problem. We are a part of the solution."

But, judging from the protocol, that solution still reflects the deep and potentially volatile sensitivities of inter-religious relations. Reporters were told several times that anyone who wished to interview one of the attendees would have to commit to three interviews — one with a representative of each faith. The first row of chairs was extended, and finally crowded across an aisle, to ensure no religious leader would sit in the second row. (Organizers said the arrangement was also meant to accommodate a group photograph.) Speakers took pains to avoid answering pointed questions on personal views and policy. "There is no point in asking us about matters of political, technical concern," said one cleric, finally, to quash further questions of that type.

Even these efforts couldn't quite keep reminders of controversy from intruding. As Trond Bakkevig of the Norwegian national church called the press conference to a close, Yonah Metzger, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, called out from the front row that he wanted to add some last-minute thoughts. Bakkevig, who spent four years working with the group to bring this event to fruition, froze for a moment before yielding the mike. Metzger then took the stage with an unscheduled plea for an end to hate in the region's schools — a clear reference to textbook material that has long been a major source of controversy in the area's schools. The Israeli press, for example, has been critical of Palestinian textbooks that do not have Israel on their maps. As the cameras whirred and Bakkevig hovered near the podium, his Muslim and Christian counterparts watched stone-faced from the front row.

The "Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land" had gathered in Washington, D.C., to unveil a new working relationship and six-point action plan. Given the sensitivities, getting the group to agree on a single message was, in the eyes of the organizers, a huge accomplishment. "Three months ago, this would not have been possible," says Bakkevig. The group of patriarchs, rabbis and sheikhs had recently met with Condoleezza Rice in Jerusalem. Rice encouraged them to go to Washington with their ideas ahead of the Mideast peace conference planned for Annapolis later this month.

The Council's new action plan has been as delicately designed as the day's seating arrangements. The document does call for an "end to occupation", but doesn't mention the two-state solution, even though individual members of the group said they favored it. The individual priorities of each group are represented in roughly equal number, in careful language that avoids assigning any blame or making any demands. The group plans to open a new office to monitor and respond to "derogatory representations of any religion." And Palestinian concerns are represented in plans to establish a hotline to government officials to help defuse conflicts that affect the area's holy sites, like the weeks-long standoff between Palestinian fighters and Israeli soldiers at the Church of the Nativity five years ago.

At the heart of the group's efforts lies Jerusalem, where controversies over infrastructure and access have long plagued the Old City. The religious leaders said they would "support the designation" of that portion of Jerusalem as a World Heritage site and "work to secure access" to it for all religions. Such reflection on the future of the city was "as far as we are prepared to go" — for now. No specifics on the difficult cooperation necessary to achieve those goals were provided.

Despite the diplomatic vagueness of the proposals, participants said they still had a central role to play in the peace process, and had asked Secretary Rice for a seat at the upcoming peace process negotiations in Annapolis. Religious divisions, they said, were both the cause of, and solution to, the region's problems. "No political solution can work without a religious dimension. To ignore it is to guarantee that it will fail," said Israeli Rabbi David Rosen. "God's working, and [saying] 'You will have to give account to me on the day of judgment if you fail.'"