(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger met with Kazkhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev Tuesday and urged him to speak to Syrian President Bashar Assad to apply pressure on Hamas's Khaled Mashaal to work for the release of kidnapped IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit as well as the two kidnapped by Hizbullah. Metzger asked that the soldiers be released by Ramadan, which this year coincides with Rosh Hashana. The chief rabbi also called on Islamic leaders to help to secure the release of the three kidnapped in Gaza and Lebanon. Metzger held aloft photographs of Shalit, and Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, during his address to the second Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in the Kazakhstan capital Astana.
"I'm showing you the pictures of three people who were kidnapped only because they belong to my country. They did not come to kill anyone and committed no crime. I call upon leaders of Islam to do all in their power to free them. If you cannot achieve this, at least allow the Red Cross to visit them as a humanitarian act," the rabbi said.
Metzger and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar are representing Judaism at the two-day inter-religious parley, where delegations from 29 countries include Islamic heads from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Libya and Kazakhstan; Christian community leaders from the US and Europe; Buddhists from Korea, China, Mongolia and Thailand; and representatives of Japanese Shintoism, Chinese Taoism and Indian Hinduism.
Nazarbayev opened the proceedings in the cavernous pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace that was inaugurated for the event by calling for inter-religious understanding.
"We sometimes forget the great religious lesson of non-violence. The role of religions goes beyond preserving spiritual legacies. We must strive for a common language through the divine, rather than through politics," Nazarbayev told the delegates seated around a vast round table inside the futuristic steel-and-glass structure.
Nazarbayev called for an inter-denominational "spiritual transformation," and for the UN to declare a year of global religious and cultural tolerance. "Increased religious intolerance is part of globalization," he told the delegates.
"The wish of one traditional culture to impose its beliefs on others will not allow mutual understanding. Who can say that he carries out the work of God better? Religion is a sacred conversation within the human soul. In order to construct an inter-religious dialogue, we must avoid misunderstandings... I am convinced that politicians follow religious postulates irrespective of whether they understand them. Politicians sometimes lack this ability," the president added.
Nazarbayev described how the majority of citizens of his central Asian republic consider themselves Muslims, yet the country's citizenship includes adherents of other religions - including 21 Jewish congregations - who live side-by-side in peace. "In the new century, inter-religious understanding must not be limited to words. We hope other countries will construct their own palaces of peace and concord. May God help us to work for the good of the world and peace," he said.
Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, Grand Imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque, asked the Kazakh president to call for an hour to be devoted at the next UN plenum to inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue, to find ways towards reconciliation and prevent further conflicts between religions and cultures.
Director-General of the UN office in Geneva Sergei Ordzhonikidze read a message from the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that said: "Relations between adherents of major religions - especially in the Middle East - threaten world peace. People of faith have a strong influence on citizens. You can be a powerful agent of change and help breach the chasm of fear and misunderstanding by sharing a path of moderation for the devout."
Metzger told the assembled religious leaders that "the world is under the threat of terror and non-conventional weapons. We, as religious leaders, must think about other nations and their pain. Yesterday [September 11], the world marked a symbolic day. Now we here around one table are expressing that it is possible to reach achievements through talking with each other. Only this way will we reach brotherhood between nations. We can prove to the world that not only [religious] extremists have a voice. Peace is the oxygen of the world. Without oxygen we cannot survive."
Metzger, who also participated in the first Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan two years ago, is due to consecrate a synagogue in the Kazakh town of Ust Kamenogorsk on September 18.
The conference is expected to wind up Wednesday with the signing of a joint declaration of Principles of Interfaith Dialogue.