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Can Religious Leaders Contribute to Middle East Peace?

November 18, 2015

Photo: Getty Images
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Universal Code of Conduct on Holy Sites Set to Go to UN

Islamic State used religion to justify the attacks in Paris, trumpeting in a statement that Allah had helped them in the series of concerted attacks that killed at least 127 people.

“In a blessed attack for which Allah facilitated the causes for success, a faithful group of the soldiers of the Caliphate, may Allah dignify it and make it victorious, launched out, targeting the capital of prostitution and obscenity, the carrier of the banner of the Cross in Europe, Paris,” the statement read.

Several NGOs in the Middle East, however, say that religion can play a positive role finding ways to share holy sites. Search for Common Ground, an organization which aims to “use innovative tools to end violent conflict around the world” has partnered with three other NGO’s, the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, One World in Dialogue and Religions for Peace, to put together a “Universal Code of Conduct on Holy Sites” that has been signed by dozens of religious leaders and is being supported by governments including Norway, Indonesia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Bosnia has agreed to support the Code of Conduct as a United Nations General Assembly Resolution, says Sharon Rosen, the Jerusalem Director of Search for Common Ground (SFCG).

“We realized that we needed political support for religious leaders to implement the Code,” she told The Media Line, adding that countries where SFCG carries out pilot projects have been among the groups supporters.

The Code says that “holy sites shall be preserved for present and future generations, with dignity, integrity and respect for their name and identity.” Access should be free as much as possible, and in cases where a site is sacred to more than one religion, “the relevant authorities shall consult with these communities to set up a legal arrangement whereby adherents of each community are ensured access to the site for religious purposes and preservation of the site.

In a section on Implementation, the Code calls for “the establishment of monitoring bodies” which would “consider any dispute over the status of a site, and seek to resolve it in a spirit of dialogue, reconciliation and solidarity.”

SFCG sponsored a conference on the Code and holy sites in Jerusalem to discuss how to apply the Code to one of the most contentious holy sites in the world – the place that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims, the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. Rumors that Israel intended to change the status quo at the site, in which the site is run by the Muslim Waqf, with Israel responsible for overall security control, sparked the current wave of stabbing and shooting attacks which have killed 14 Israelis and wounded dozens of others. About 100 Palestinians, some of them attackers and some involved in clashes with Israeli forces, have also been killed since October 1.

“We are sitting on a volcano here and it’s smoking,” Rosen said. “But unlike a natural volcano, whether it erupts or not depends on our behavior.”

The international community is interested in helping both Israel and the Palestinians find a way to share the site that has been the focus of so much tension.

“There cannot be a solution to the conflict without addressing the concerns of all of the religious communities in this land,” Jon Hanssen-Bauer, the Norwegian Ambassador to Israel said. “The recent tensions linked to Jerusalem were an eye-opener for us.”

Sheikh Raed Salah, the head of the northern wing of the Islamic movement in Israel, fanned the flames when he began warning that “Al-Aqsa (one of the mosques at the site that is mentioned in the Qur’an) is in danger,” and saying that Israel intended to blow up the mosque and replace it with the Third Temple. Jewish believers say the site is the location of the First and Second Temples which were destroyed, while Muslims say it is the site where the Prophet Mohammed went up to heaven.

Salah is due to begin a prison sentence for incitement to violence, and Israel this week outlawed his organization, closing offices and ruling it illegal to belong to the group. Also banned from al-Aqsa recently were the “murabitat”, groups of Muslim women who formed learning circles at al-Aqsa and often intimidated Jews who came to visit the site. The number of Jewish visitors has increased substantially in recent months, intensifying the tensions. Israel has charged the women are paid by the Islamic movement to harass Jewish visitors.

“The members of the Murabitat see coming to al-Aqsa, and studying there as a religious duty and experience,” Salwa Alenalt, a PhD candidate in the Middle East Department in Ben Gurion University said. “They are not willing to give up this experience.”

There are models for Jews and Muslims to cooperate on sharing sacred space. Last month, the solemn Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur when 80 percent of Israelis fast and traffic comes to a standstill, fell on the same day as the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, usually celebrated with barbeques. In the mixed Jewish-Arab town of Acre, where about a third of the citizens are Muslim, local religious leaders met to try to defuse potential tensions.

“These holidays intersect twice every 30 years,” Sheikh Samir Assi, the Imam, of the Al-Jazaar Mosque in Acre said. “We met and decided that the Muslims would put off their barbeques until after the Jewish holiday ended, and that if they wanted to visit family, they would go on foot rather than driving.”

“In Islam, numerous verses emphasize the need for tolerance,” Sheikh Assi said. “Religion must not be allowed to become a tool of conflict and hatred.”

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