London, Jan 30--(AP) The spiritual heads of the Church of England and Sunni Islam on Wednesday formally signed a joint initiative to promote greater understanding and respect between Christians and Muslims. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, and Dr. Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the grand imam of Sunni Islam's Al-Azhar University in Cairo, said they hoped the agreement for greater dialogue would make a real contribution to achieving peace in the Middle East.

The initiative establishes a joint committee comprised of three clerics from both Sunni Islam and the Anglican Communion that will meet at least once a year in Egypt and Britain alternatively. "Because of our common faith in God and our responsibility to witness against indifference to religion on the one hand and religious fanaticism on the other, we hope that we may be able to contribute to international efforts to achieve justice, peace and the welfare of all humanity,'' the agreement says.

Carey told The Associated Press after the ceremony, which took place at his official London residence Lambeth Palace, that given the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks he thought it was time Western religious leaders were more active in political life, as is common in Islamic countries. "I think it's important to bring religions in as important players into areas of conflict, such as the Middle East," Carey said. "What's happening here in our signing is Christian and Muslim leaders are saying, 'We've got to make a difference to the human family, and we're going to make some progress - pragmatic as well as philosophical.'"

Carey said when he retires as the head of the Church of England in nine months he would still like to be involved in the dialogue. "Obviously, I don't want to get in the way of my successor because I believe my successor should come into this as representing the Anglican Communion, but I hope to have a part to play in some way."

Tantawi said in an interview that he Carey had been friends for years and share many of the same convictions, including the pursuit of world peace, helping the needy and further development of security and prosperity. "Our efforts are to spread the truth to all people and reveal the real faith of the heavenly religions ... so as to be friends with each other," he said, regarding the agreement.

Tantawi said since the terrorist attacks in the United States he has been working to repair the image of Islam. "I see the events of Sept. 11 as a real disaster and real crime against humanity and law," he said.

Al-Azhar University is a center of learning for Sunni Islam, including scholars and spiritual leaders, and helps develop Islamic law. The school is considered by many to be the world's leading seat of learning on Sunni Islam, the faith's mainstream sect to which the majority of Egypt's 67 million people adheres.

Tantawi, 73, is a moderate scholar and supporter of women rights whose views make him a frequent target of fundamentalist Muslims. He was appointed by the Egyptian government to his post. Carey, 66, will retire Oct. 31 as spiritual leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans after a term marked by controversy over women priests, gay clergy and the church's mounting financial problems.

The Church of England is the "mother church" for the Anglican Communion, which groups autonomous churches in more than 160 countries--including 2.5 million Episcopalians in the United States.

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