2016-07-27
JERUSALEM, July 25 (RNS)--Hours earlier, they had met in a joint prayer for peace--a few dozen Jews, Muslims, and Christians invoking God's name together with a group of visiting Japanese Shinto priests.

But by Tuesday afternoon, it became clear those prayers wouldn't be answered any time soon as news of the breakdown in the Israeli-Palestinian summit negotiations at Camp David filtered through the Holy City.

The summit's breakdown brought sighs of relief, and even joy, from religious extremists on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide. But it triggered sorrow and dismay among those religious leaders who have worked diligently for years to promote inter-religious dialogue.

"I feel very bad, to be honest," said Mohammed Hourani, a Muslim theologian and interfaith activist. Only a few hours earlier, Hourani and a group of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interfaith activists had participated in a joint worship service conducted by the Oomoto Foundation, a monotheistic branch of Shintoism.

In an elaborate Oriental ceremony, a dozen Japanese priests, together with a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim sheikh, and a Christian minister, had placed offerings of fruits and plants on a common altar overlooking Jerusalem's Old City holy sites, and offered prayers for peace in Hebrew, Arabic, and Japanese.

"Here only today, we had succeeded to come together to pay a kind of respect to our heritage and respective religions," observed Hourani.

Jerusalem is a unique setting for that--a place where Muslims, Christians, and Jews can come together along with peoples from the world over. It is a place that inspires feelings and hope in all mankind.

"But maybe people are not ready yet to accept the changes that we are looking for in our inter-religious encounters. The results we have obtained in Camp David must push us to continue working together even more intensively so that others may be convinced that it is possible to share our Abrahamic legacy," Hourani said.

The conflicting Jewish, Muslim, and Christian claims to Jerusalem were among the thorniest issues the Camp David summit negotiators confronted. Some observers, like the Rev. Charles Kopp, an evangelical Christian minister, saw in the dispute the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of Zechariah, which says "Jerusalem will be a heavy stone burdening the world."

"It seems almost as if the positions are getting more adamant and hard-line," he said. "When Yasser Arafat stated that he had to get the agreement of the entire Muslim world on a Jerusalem settlement, then you could see that the stakes were getting higher and higher."

Ironically, the region's leading religious figures largely took on the role of observers during the negotiations on the future of the Holy City and its religious sites--taking a back seat to the politicians. And when religious leaders did issue statements, the positions they expressed were critical and defensive--rather than positive initiatives that might help forge a breakthrough.

"I'm afraid that religion in this part of the world is not very prophetic," said Rabbi David Rosen, head of the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League and a prominent figure in inter-religious dialogue.

"Religious leaders in this region are essentially clerical, more often than not controlled by political interests. Religion has not spearheaded the peace process. It has more often been in conflict with it. And when religious leaders have supported peace efforts, they have generally been the followers, rather than the leaders. That is the lamentable reality," he said.

When peace talks crashed to the ground, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the ailing spiritual leader of the militant Islamic Hamas organization, was among the first to declare: "It was to be expected. The Palestinians should have never entered into the process."

On the Israeli side, the breakdown in talks prompted Shaul Yahalom, a leader of religious Jewish settlers, to exclaim, "Blessed be God. If the negotiations had succeeded, Jerusalem would have been divided and the Jewish people would have been broken."

While the Vatican and the leading Christian churches of the region had been more supportive of the talks in principle, there, too, parochial concerns often overshadowed the broader issue of the negotiations' success or failure.

In a July 17 letter to the summit participants, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodoros I, Catholic Patriarch Michel Sabbah, and Armenian Patriarch Torkom Manoogian II called the summit a "prophetic mission of ending the long and painful conflict in our region."

But the statement by the three patriarchs--later echoed by the Vatican--went on to sharply criticize a proposal under discussion at the time whereby Palestinians would have obtained control over Jerusalem's Old City Muslim and Christian quarters while Israel retained the Armenian and Jewish quarters.

"Those same religious institutions that were so concerned about the repercussions of success should now be concerned about the repercussions of failure," said Rosen. "Those same international religious institutions that have been making various demands and expressing various expectations should now exercise their moral voice on behalf of restraint and reconciliation."

The calls for restraint were issued against a background of fears and expectations that serious Palestinian-Israeli clashes could soon erupt in the wake of the summit's failure. However, some religious figures sought to put a more optimistic face on the future, seeing the summit breakdown as just one more setback among many that have marred the peace process.

"I don't believe that this is the end of the peace process, it is one more of the impasses," said Bishop Munib Younan, who heads the Lutheran Church in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.

"Even if negotiations have fallen apart, the talks succeeded in opening the 'sensitive files' that were never discussed before, like Jerusalem and the refugees. My prayer is that the talks will still go on, and Jerusalem will ultimately be for the two nations and three religions."

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