11/26/2010, 00.00
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Al-Azhar to start dialogue with Jewish scholars

Declaration by foremost Sunni institution of learning removes ancient ban on Muslim-Jewish relations. Announcement is made in London. A Jewish World Congress vice president reacts positively to the news.

Cairo (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Sheikh Fawzi Al-Zifzaf, head of Al-Azhar's Permanent Committee for Dialogue with the Monotheistic Religions in Cairo, drafted a landmark statement that clears the way to a new phase in Muslim-Jewish relations. His declaration, which lifts an ancient ban on dialogue between followers of the two Abrahamic religions, was read Tuesday at a meeting of political and religious leaders at the House of Lords in London.

The 'Banu Ibrahim-Children of Abraham Declaration' emphasises that Islam calls for "brotherhood and mutual understanding and the strengthening of bonds between Muslims and followers of the other religions, and the establishment of bridges of dialogue with scholarly institutions in Europe and America.”

The event in which the declaration was made public was organised by Children of Abraham and the Al-Azhar Institute for Dialogue with the Monotheistic Religions.

The Sunni university had already opened channels of communication with Catholics and Anglicans in the 1990s, but its scholars have not officially engaged in talks with Jews until now.

Whilst the statement failed to mention Judaism by name, Mohamed Elsharkawy, a spokesman for Britain’s Grand mufti, said it was aimed at a Jewish audience.

“I am not at liberty to say how hard it was to draft the document,” he said. “In the process, the people who have taken the document forward have done so at great risk and danger, and so they’ve done that very carefully. There already exists a dialogue with Christians, so anyone with two brain cells can add up to what is being said here”.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, a vice-president of the World Jewish Congress and a pioneer in fostering closer Jewish-Muslim relations, praised the declaration.

“This is a landmark decision, and Al-Azhar deserves praise for it. Coming from the leading centre of Islamic thinking in the world, it will be enormously helpful for all moderate forces within Islam. This declaration rightly emphasises the importance of inter-faith relations. Leaders from both sides should now seize the opportunity and take Jewish-Muslim relations to the next level.”

Founded in 970, Al-Azhar is the leading centre of Sunni Islamic learning in the world. In June 2009, US President Barack Obama gave a widely noted speech on relations between America and Islam there.

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