ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
VATICAN CITY — A delegation of Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Druse religious leaders in Israel met Thursday with Pope Benedict XVI in a high-profile display of their efforts to promote interfaith peace initiatives in the region.
The Council of Religious Leaders in Israel was created in 2007 in Jerusalem to bring together Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders in Israel to raise awareness about the need for interfaith dialogue and cooperation in the Holy Land.
The audience with the pope was designed in part to boost the profile of the council, which counts among its members representatives of Israel's Islamic, or Sharia courts.
Sheik Kiwan Mohamad, who heads an association of some 500 imams in Israel, said the fact that the council exists was proof that people of different faiths can live together peacefully, even amid the political unrest in the Middle East.
"Islam is a religion of peace that loves life and condemns any act in the name of religion against the very principles of the religion," he said. "The people who act in this way are selfish; they do so for themselves and out of personal motives and interests."
Israeli chief rabbi Yonah Metzger praised the "historic" nature of the audience with the German-born pope and noted that it fell on the anniversary of the Kristallnacht, the Nazi's 1938 anti-Jewish pogrom which left 91 Jews dead, damaged more than 1,000 synagogues and left some 7,500 Jewish businesses ransacked and looted.
"We, the religious leaders of the Holy Land, have come to prove once and for all that we can live in peace," he told the pope.
Benedict has long promoted interfaith dialogue and two weeks ago invited some 30 religious leaders from around the world to take part in a pilgrimage to Assisi, commemorating the 25th anniversary of a similar prayer day for peace hosted by Pope John Paul II.
He welcomed the council members and urged them to continue working to "foster a climate of trust and dialogue" among all leaders of the region.
Sheikh Muaffaq Tarif, leader of Israel's Druze community, said he hoped Thursday's audience would serve as an example to leaders around the world. The Druse religion is a secretive offshoot of Islam; the Druse within Israel are well integrated into society, serving as ministers, lawmakers and army generals.
While the council is represented by most of the main faiths present in the Holy Land, including the Anglican Church, there is no Greek Orthodox representation due to Orthodox-Catholic tensions, council members said.
In addition, the two most significant Islamic groups in Israel aren't represented: the conservative Southern Islamic Movement and its more radical breakaway stepchild, the Northern Islamic Movement. It's not clear how large either group is, but between them, they represent a fair indicator of popular religious Muslim sentiment in Israel.