Jewish and Muslim leaders on Monday opened a congress aimed at reconciliation between their faiths by warning that religious strife and terrorism spawned by it are some of the world's gravest threats.
"We are standing on the edge of the precipice and looking down," Rabbi Israel Singer, a leader of the World Jewish Congress, said as the four-day meeting got under way in earnest after a ceremonial opening in Seville, Spain on Sunday night.
He likened the congress, organized by a Paris-based peace foundation called Hommes de Parole, and the momentum behind it to the biblical tale of Noah building an ark to survive the world's destruction.
Prince Hassan of Jordan, the uncle of King Abdullah, said in a videotaped message sent to the meeting that Muslims and Jews need to work harder to understand each other.
"We need more scholarship," he said. "We have to be courageous in looking at our own (religious) texts and at each other's," the prince said.
The meeting is called the Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace. The first edition was held last year in Brussels.
Monday's sessions were workshops dedicated to examining how Islam and Judaism can adapt to a rapidly changing world and its effects on institutions like families and morality. Later in the week they are to talk about what imams and rabbis themselves can do to encourage peace among their faithful.
The congress is designed to foster an atmosphere of camaraderie _ the more than 150 delegates from 31 countries of the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Africa and the United States are all staying in the same hotel and taking their meals together. Organizers want them to talk freely with each other.
But at one point Monday tension surfaced at an unexpected moment - a coffee break - when the imam of the Gaza Strip, Imad al-Falouji, got into a forceful, almost angry discussion with a rabbi from Orange County, California, Stuart Altshuler, over Israel's occupation of Palestinian land and the status of Jerusalem.
Al-Falouji said he expected nothing good to come from the congress and equated Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies toward the Palestinians with the terrorism of Osama bin Laden.
"Bin Laden killed and Sharon killed," the imam said. "I am against both."
He called the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, "a big liar" for giving a speech here Sunday in which he criticized Muslim leaders for failing to condemn bin Laden but said nothing explicit about the Israeli occupation.
Altshuler insisted Israelis have the right to live within secure borders, free from Palestinian terrorist attacks, and are discriminated against by Muslim countries. He said, for instance, it is a crime for a Jew to pray in Saudi Arabia.
He also asked why the Palestinians, who want Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state, would not be willing to share the city.
"Why should I?" al-Falouji answered. He also said he is considering giving up on attending this kind of meeting.
"This is so depressing," Altshuler said. "I wish he weren't so negative."