Iranians walk out on Peres in Astana

At interfaith parley, president calls for peace summit involving Saudi king, other Arab leaders.

Mehdi Mostafavi 248.88 (photo credit: )
Mehdi Mostafavi 248.88
(photo credit: )
Carrying out their threat, the Iranian representatives staged a walkout during President Shimon Peres's keynote address at the Congress of World and Traditional Religions in Astana, Kazakhstan on Wednesday morning, refusing to return as long as the Israeli leader spoke. Peres was not originally scheduled to attend the conference, but since he was in Kazakhstan anyway as a guest of honor, he received a late invitation. When asked if he would speak to the attending Israeli chief rabbis or any of the American rabbis present, Mehdi Mostafavi, an adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said: "We'll see." Another member of the Iranian delegation, one of Mostafavi's aides, spoke with Israeli journalists during the joint exodus through the hallways of the Astana convention center, saying, "Israel won't attack us [Iran]; we're not afraid of Israel or the United States." "Your president is a stealer of lands and a conqueror, and we're not willing to hear him," the delegate continued. "Peres represents an abominable Zionist personality, and his place is not here." During his address, Peres called on King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who instigated the Arab peace initiative, asking him to meet in Jerusalem or in Riyadh, or to travel to Kazakhstan, where, together with other Arab leaders, he could advance the Israeli-Arab peace process. "Together with all the Arab leaders, we can realize your vision, our vision and the vision of all the leaders and all believers in our shared god of peace and justice. We are aware of the big change which has occurred in the positions of majority of Arab countries toward peace with Israel, a transition from the 'Three Noes of Khartoum' - no negotiation, no recognition, no peace - to the 'three yeses' of the Saudi initiative," Peres said. "The king of Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Abdullah II, defined the Saudi initiative as a readiness for peace between the state of Israel and 57 Arab and Muslim states," he continued. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger also spoke at the conference and called for peace among nations, arousing attention when he held up a picture of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Schalit and said: "No one knows where he is and how he fares." Metzger appealed to all the religious leaders to pressure Hamas to allow a "person of faith" to visit the soldier. Metzger also called "on all religious leaders not to use houses of prayer as instigators of terror." Speaking with some of the Israeli businessmen in his entourage shortly after the session's conclusion, Peres marveled at the fact that the only people to leave the hall during his speech were Iranian delegate Mostafavi and his two aides. "Don't belittle what just happened," the president said. "It's the first time I've seen a Muslim [delegate] leave the room completely alone. Iran has learned that it is all alone." "This religious conference bears an atmosphere that is an asset to Israel," Peres added. Iranian representatives only discovered Monday the extent of Israeli participation in the interfaith conference that began Wednesday in Astana, including the keynote address to be delivered by Peres, The Jerusalem Post learned. While Mostafavi, who also serves as president of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (IPRO), had told the Post at the conference that religion could be a factor for peace, the Iranian delegation threatened in advance to leave in the middle of Peres's speech. They had asked the organizers that only religious leader deliver speeches in the conference. Representatives of the host, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, were insisting in discussions with the Iranians that a walkout on Peres would amount to a walkout on Nazarbayev. It is the third such congress hosted by Nazarbayev in Astana - previous ones were in 2003 and 2006 - and is part of a broader effort to position Kazakhstan as a meeting ground for discussing religious differences. With 60 business figures and government officials in Peres's entourage, this was very much a working visit. But after the space technology agreement signed Tuesday and agriculture, communications and construction projects launched in high-level meetings, the visit turned from hard-nosed business and diplomacy to a gentler discussion about how religion could be brought to bear on the problems of the region. As well as both of Israel's chief rabbis, also in attendance were a cardinal who leads interfaith issues in the Vatican, an Anglican bishop and representatives of other Protestant denominations worldwide. Some of the top leaders of the Muslim world, including Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the venerable grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque, were also present. Dozens more religious groups, including Buddhists from Thailand and China, Zoroastrians, Shintoists from Japan and a large array of political figures, were also at the conference. "Israel needs a country like Kazakhstan. This is Islam you can live with, Islam you can join with to advance human progress, Islam that respects other peoples," Industry and Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told the Post on Tuesday. Ben-Eliezer is one of three cabinet ministers accompanying Peres on a weeklong state visit to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, the first such visit by a top Israeli leader. The impressive spectrum at the gathering is precisely what Nazarbayev sought to create. It is an effort to make Kazakhstan's unique religious openness - "a land without a drop of anti-Semitism," Peres had called the country during the visit - a lever for influencing the region. This intermediary role is highlighted by the international roles the country will undertake over the next two years. In 2010, Kazakhstan will chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the first Central Asian country to lead the 56-member organization whose center of gravity is the West and whose purpose is the advancement of human rights. Kazakhstan "intends to use its chairmanship to promote interreligious dialogue," according to a government statement. The Kazakh Embassy in Washington looks forward to "the opportunity for three consecutive years of interfaith dialogue on a prominent global stage." "Religions have a deep effect on politics," Peres had said in a joint press conference with Nazarbayev in Astana on Tuesday. "If they could be mobilized to the cause of peace, that would have a very large impact on the political situation."