Leaders in "landmark" Aussie interfaith meet

Christians, Muslims and Jews have come together for a "landmark" Middle East peace congress organised by Australia's bishops - but controversial Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly was not invited.

Key people from the three major Abrahamic traditions attended the conference at NSW's Parliament House on Wednesday at the invitation of the bishops to discuss "The Role of Religion in Achieving Peace in the Middle East."

According to an Australian bishops' statement, speakers at the event included Archbishop Elias Chacour, Mr Jeremy Jones and Dr Mohommad Sammak.

Melkite Catholic Archbishop Chacour of Galilee (pictured) told the audience he had come to Australia as a beggar - not for money, but for friendship and for solidarity with the Christian community in the Middle East.

The archbishop, a noted peace activist and advocate of reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis, told the congress that the conflict in the Middle East has never been a religious conflict or a social or racial conflict.

"It is about the identical claims of two nations on the same territory," he said.

He said the majority of Arabs and Israelis want peace and security.

"But both Jews and Palestinians to my mind have made a major mistake - they wanted their old peace and their old justice. Unless we all learn how to belong to the land, maybe we have only one solution - to be buried together in different ways in the same land."

Archbishop Chacour said the role of Christianity was to bring forward an alternative to the pervading culture of death in the Middle East.

"We want to welcome the otherness of the other as a brother, not as an other," he said.

Archbishop Chacour urged Australians who visit the Holy Land to go beyond the shrines and holy places to spend some time with the local Christian communities.

Praise for Aussie interfaith relations

Mr Jones of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council paid tribute to the extraordinary depth of inter-religious dialogue in Australia and said it was the envy of much of the world.

"We don't only meet together as Christians, Jews and Muslims, but we discuss things that bother us too," he said.

Mr Jones said one of the key roles of religious leaders in the political process is to pray, to try to imbue any political debate with a moral dimension and a forward thinking dimension.

He warned against the tendency for people to cherry pick from religious beliefs.

"It is easy to cherry pick religion without looking at what is meant and without taking a holistic view," he said.

As the final speaker, the Secretary General of the Islamic Spiritual Council in Lebanon, Dr Sammak spoke of the role which Australia could have in helping to promote peace in the Middle East.

"Australia has no history of religious conflict but Australia can make history in a role of promoting peace and reconciliation. I believe that Australia can play this role of bridging not only in the Middle East, but all over international communities."

The President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Philip Wilson gave the official welcome at the event, which was attended by about 90 key representatives.

Sheik al Hilaly not invited

However, Sydney's Daily Telegraph points out that one notable absence from the Muslim delegation was Sheik al Hilaly.

The paper claims that several key leaders of Australian Muslims insisted the controversial mufti be left off the invitation list.

The Telegraph quotes one prominent Muslim as saying that Sheik al Hilaly from the Lakemba Mosque in Sydney was not invited because he does not represent Muslim views.

Conference chairman Bishop Michael Putney, who confirmed Muslim and Jewish leaders decided who their representatives at the forum would be, said religious leaders could promote tolerance between communities.

He said in response to a question about the controversial Sheik's absence that "it is very easy for one person to become the focus of attention."

Sheik al Hilaly was recently described in a Sydney Morning Herald profile as "the mufti we love to hate" for his outspokenness on issues such as international relations and women's fashion.

Australia has important role to play as bridge builder in Middle East - ACBC inter-religious congress hears (ACBC Media Release, 3/5/07)
Hilaly barred from faith forum (Daily Telegraph, 3/5/07)
The mufti we love to hate (Sydney Morning Herald, 2/5/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference
Archbishop Elias Chacour (Catholic-Hierarchy)
Lebanese Moslems Association | Sheikh Services
Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council

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4 May 2007