Peace on earth and goodwill to men, the traditional Christmas message, was the prevailing theme at the annual New Year reception hosted by President Shimon Peres for Christian spiritual leaders and heads of Christian institutions at Beit Hanassi on Monday. The event was held between the generally accepted date of Christmas on December 25, and that of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is January 7. The president, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Theophilos III, the Greek patriarch of Jerusalem, each made numerous references to peace in their respective addresses. Peres subtly hinted that the Ministry of the Interior could do better in its work towards peaceful coexistence by making holy places and freedom of worship more accessible to people of all faiths. "It is our task to ensure that everyone can go freely to holy places in complete freedom of worship," he declared, alluding to last week's raid on the south Tel Aviv Church of Redemption Power by six officers of the Interior Ministry's Oz unit, which primarily cracks down on illegal foreign workers. The church is located in a four-room apartment, and congregants sometimes sleep there. Mosques, churches and synagogues are places of prayer with good intentions, said Peres, and they are not places into which anti-Muslim, anti-Christian or anti-Jewish elements should be introduced. Peres said: "There are some differences between us, but many similarities. All of us, Jews, Muslims and Christians, are praying for peace." While each religion had its own prayers, Peres acknowledged, "we are looking at the same sky and are looking to the Lord of love not hate, to the Lord of peace and not violence, to the Lord of hope for all our children." He attached great importance to last May's visit to Israel by Pope Benedict XVI, who he said had brought a message of togetherness, hope and peace. Peres said that despite "some disagreeable events," peace was nearer than people realized. The immediate task was to renew negotiations with the Palestinians and to overcome remaining differences. Despite the polemics, he emphasized, there was a broader understanding that there was no alternative to peace, and that the best solution was a two-state solution in which two peoples lived alongside each other in peace and trust. Israel was also ready to negotiate with Syria and Lebanon, he said, and as far as Lebanon was concerned had fulfilled all the conditions stipulated by the United Nations. Peres expressed the hope that Lebanon would return to its former status as a united but multi-cultural nation with people of different faiths living in peace. He endorsed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's advocacy of direct negotiations with the Syrians, without any mediators. Peres also came out strongly against ethnic or religious discrimination in Israel, declaring that "every expression of discrimination should be crossed out." The Interior Ministry must make sure that young people of all faiths have the same opportunities to acquire higher education, he said, mindful that many young students from minority communities have difficulty in getting past security checkpoints to attend institutions of higher learning. Insofar as the Christian communities are concerned, Peres told the leaders: "We are answerable and sensitive to your needs." Prior to the ceremony, some of the Christian clergy had told journalists that Israel does not allow priests and pastors serving in Syria and Lebanon, as well as other parts of the Middle East, to enter Israel. Yishai was more focused on Jewish values than Christian ones, and noted that observant Jews have for centuries prayed for peace three times a day. "We all pray for the peace of the world," he said. "This is an opportunity for leaders of all faiths to bring the message of peace to their own members and to future generations throughout the world." Quoting from the ninth chapter of the Book of Isaiah, Theophilos illustrated how since time immemorial the attainment of peace had not been the prerogative of governments acting alone, but in cooperation with religious leaders. "Events and gatherings such as this are of great importance for promoting values that are greatly needed in our present day," he said. Noting that the Holy Land is host to the three monotheistic religions as well as to multiculturalism and ethnic-religious diversity, Theophilos said: "We the community of the Holy Land in general, and Christians in particular, must always strive to speak united, invigorating one vision for peace and harmonious coexistence." The clergy is both crucial and fundamental in denouncing violence and promoting peace-building, he said. "Just as political leaders must be shaped by the principles of their religious traditions, in the same way religious leaders have a role in forming congregations and communities of faithful people to exercise responsible citizenship." Political polarization along with ideological zeal and eagerness have increasingly posed a serious challenge to the efforts and great intentions of religious leaders, said Theophilos. "To many people around the world, the relationship between religion and political unrest has been complicated and vulnerable. It is our obligation as religious leaders to lay foundations enabling all political efforts to defuse such complexity and present religion as the most effective tool in reconciliation and peace building." Theophilos was diplomatic in his references to the Israeli authorities, specifically in relation to "free movement of the faithful, provision for entry visas for clerics, honoring the privileges of tax exemption sanctioned by sacred history and the historic standing of the ownership of Church property." He did not elaborate on these issues other than to say that while Christian leaders were appreciative of the efforts of the authorities to facilitate access for pilgrims and worshipers, "more could always be done." With regard to the common Christian concerns mentioned above, Theophilos urged that there be progress on all these matters. In reiterating the willingness of Christian institutions and Christian leadership in the Holy Land to utilize all the resources at their disposal towards the advancement of peace, Theophilos said that the message was peace, not war, dialogue, not indifference, respect, not bigotry and bridges, not barriers.