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Imams, Rabbis clash over Israel
Conference designed to bring Jewish, Muslim leaders together, promote tolerance, but turns into verbal brawl over Middle East issue

Middle East politics intruded loudly and repeatedly Tuesday at an international meeting aimed at getting imams and rabbis talking about peace.

 

The conference in the southern Spanish city, Seville, is designed to help Jews and Muslims understand each other. But a fight during one of the meeting's largest sessions showed just how far the two sides have to go when it comes to the issue of Israel. 

 

"Unless we get to the core of the issue, we are pussyfooting around," said Nazlin Umar Rajput, chairwoman of the National Muslim Council of Kenya. "It is a fight over ownership of land."

 

250 representatives, 31 countries

 

The meeting, called the Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace, was organized by a Paris-based group called Hommes de Parole. It has drawn some 250 imams, rabbis and academics from 31 countries, including the United States.

 

After abruptly changing Monday's schedule when a session dealing with family issues turned heated, organizers again rushed to calm tempers Tuesday.

 

At one point, Muslim delegates stood up and shouted when a moderator tried to halt a Palestinian professor from the Gaza Strip who said life under Israeli occupation was like being in "a large prison."

 

Learning how to talk

 

Ari Alexander, an American Jew who works for a New York-based foundation that does Internet education projects for Muslim and Jewish children, said leaders from both faiths do not really know how to talk to each other.

 

"We are babies in this conversation. This is brand-new stuff," Alexander said.

 

Lateef Adegbite, secretary general of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, said he made his first visit to a synagoguge during last year's inaugural congress in Belgium.

 

"Imagine, at my age," the 70-year-old said.

 

Global conflict

 

Chaim Steinmetz, a rabbi from Montreal, said he came to Seville with a very local agenda - learning how other religious leaders try to foster harmony among Jews and Muslims in their cities.

 

But he quickly realized there was something else on many people's minds - the Middle East conflict.

 

"The guys from Gaza needed to be heard," Steinmetz said. "This discussion was global. Global means the Middle East conflict."

 

Walter Ruby, an American Jew who runs an educational foundation in New York called Religion in Dialogue, said he was encouraged by the fact that rabbis and imams sang religious verses after dinner Monday night and even danced together.

 

"If we can sing and dance together in Seville, why can't we walk together in the land we love?" Ruby said. 

 

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