Religious Leaders Voice Support for U.S. Leadership in Mideast Peace Efforts

Over two dozen religious leaders issued a public statement Wednesday supporting "a new hope for the peace of Jerusalem."

The 28 leaders – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – offered support for the Obama administration's efforts to continue peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"We stand united in support of active, fair, and firm U.S. leadership for Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace," the leaders said in the statement organized through the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI).

"As religious leaders, we remain firmly committed to a two-state solution to the conflict as the only viable way forward," the leaders added. "We believe that concerted, sustained U.S. leadership for peace is essential. And we know that time is not on the side of peace, that delay is not an option."

On Tuesday, Washington's special Mideast envoy rushed to the West Bank on an emergency mission to keep peace talks from collapsing just weeks after they began.

Israel's decision to resume new settlement construction in the region after a ten-month moratorium expired on midnight Sunday has provoked Palestinian threats to walk out of the talks.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had urged Israel to halt new West Bank settlement construction as long as Mideast peace talks continue, saying Tuesday that he feared the two sides might miss a "historic opportunity" if Israel refuses to renew the just-expired freeze on the building.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in response, has indicated he would be prepared to limit new building but refused to agree to a complete halt.

While Palestinians aspire to an independent state in the territory that Israel conquered in the 1967 war, Israel maintains that the territory is disputed and has stressed its need for security. Key issues in the negotiations have been borders and the fate of Jewish settlements on land Palestinians want for a future state.

On Wednesday, members of NILI gathered in Washington to meet with National Security Advisor General James Jones and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to whom they presented their statement.

Among the signers of the statement were the heads of the largest mainline denominations; Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA; Cardinal McCarrick, Catholic archbishop emeritus of Washington; and David Neff, editor-in-chief and vice-president of Christianity Today.

Jewish leaders included David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Eric Yoffie, president of Union of Reform Judaism, among others. Muslim leaders, meanwhile, included Sayyid Muhammad Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America; Iftekhar A. Hai, founding director of United Muslims of America; and Dawud Assad, president emeritus of the Council of Mosques, USA.

Together, the leaders said they have prayed for peace, made public statements, met with public officials and supported religious leaders throughout the Middle East region.

They have also called on members of their religious communities to pray for peace in Jerusalem and to support U.S. leadership to advance comprehensive peace in the Middle East, according to the statement.

"The United States has a unique and indispensable role which gives our nation a special responsibility to pursue peace. Achieving Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace will have positive reverberations in the region and around the world. Our nation and the world will be much safer with the achievement of the peace of Jerusalem," the leaders wrote.

According to the latest reports, Israeli defense officials have suggested there might be an undeclared freeze on construction in the West Bank. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has reportedly been quietly exercising his authority to quash any new building projects.

Israel's decision to resume new West Bank settlement construction this past week drew criticism from U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and senior European officials

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