• ISRAEL \ Jul 05, 2001
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    Clerics seek new path to Middle East peace
Clerics seek new path to Middle East peace JEWISH, Muslim and Christian clerics in the Holy Land are engaged in secret dialogue on some of the thorniest issues at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

According to Rabbi Michael Melchior, the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister and an Orthodox rabbi, the religious contacts have survived through the past ten months of violence with the blessing of political leaders whose own negotiations have effectively collapsed.

Rabbi Melchior, speaking in London, said that the clerics would be meeting again next week, although he would not say who was involved out of fear of harming the process.

I do not want to go into technicalities,he said. It's not worth it if it will destroy the possibility of something that could avoid more bloodshed.

He said that the discussions were taking place in the spirit of hudna, an Arabic term meaning armistice. Although the talks are essentially of a religious nature they have touched on some burning political topics. It is not a political negotiation. We have been in talks for a decade. The main target is to find legitimacy in both camps to stop terror and violence, he said.

The Jewish side in particular has been eager to encourage prominent Muslim clerics to come out against the wave of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants of targets in Israel. The young bombers are usually convinced that by committing suicide they are guaranteed a place in paradise. Moderate Muslim leaders have condemned the practice.

The clerics are also believed to have discussed the thorny question of Jerusalem's Old City, which contains sites holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews. The issue of sovereignty over the area was blamed for destroying peace efforts last year at Camp David between Ehud Barak, the former Israeli Prime Minister, and Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian leader.

Yesterday Sheikh Talal Sidr, a Palestinian Muslim cleric and a minister in Mr Arafat's Government, confirmed that he had met Rabbi Melchior in April during the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Despite heavy fighting at the time, the two men were joined by Israel?s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, representing the Jews who had migrated from Arab and North African nations, and Rabbi Menahem Froman, from the Jewish settlement of Tekoa, in the West Bank, who has attempted to maintain dialogue with the Palestinians. Sheikh Sidr said that they had discussed Jewish settlements, borders, Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem.

It was not clear which Christian leaders have been involved in the inter-faith dialogue, although it seems likely that the Roman Catholic Church could be involved. Rabbi Melchior took a leading role during the Pope?s successful tour of the Holy Land last year, saying that he believed it was important to foster closer relations between Jews and Christians.

Rabbi Melchior, who still holds the title of Chief Rabbi of Denmark, is a centrist Israeli member of parliament in the small religious Meimad party. He was appointed by Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, to his ministerial post in March to work alongside Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister.

He said yesterday that for too long the Middle East's problems had been blamed on religion, while secular leaders had kept clerics out of the peacemaking process. 'Secular leaders have ignored it (religion) and hoped that if you ignore it, it will disappear,he said. Then it explodes in your face.

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