It's not often that the keynote speakers at a conference speak openly about the possibility that the meeting will fail.
But speakers at the second World Congress of Rabbis and Imams for Peace, held last week in Seville, Spain, made it clear that if this year's event didn't lead to a concrete plan of action, it will have to be judged a failure.
The congress was the second time that more than 150 rabbis and imams have come together in the name of peace, with the last meeting held in Brussels in January 2005. The group already is taking some small steps, such as examining textbooks used by Jewish and Muslim schools in Jerusalem to ensure that educational materials don't encourage intolerance.
At the conclusion, the congress' executive committee issued a statement condemning violence in the name of religion, with words that could be seen as a repudiation of anti-Jewish agitation by Hamas and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"We deplore any incitement against a faith or people, let alone any call for their elimination," the statement said.
The congress also called for respect for religious institutions, cemeteries, symbols and holy sites, and reaffirmed that "there is no inherent conflict between Islam and Judaism."
"One cannot exaggerate the importance of this event. Taking into account the backdrop of violence in Europe and ongoing conflict in the Holy Land, the very fact that we are meeting here is nearly a miracle," Shear Yeshuv Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa, said as the conference concluded March 22. "We will return to our communities to educate for peace and reconciliation, because that is what God wants from us."
The senior Palestinian Authority figure at the conference echoed that sense of mission.
"Religious leaders must play a role to promote a culture of dialogue," said Sheikh Imad al-Falouji, imam of Gaza. "We can impact on our political leaders to consider these values in their policy-making decisions."
The patrons of the event -- the kings of Spain and Morocco -- didn't attend the forum, but the Hommes de Paroles Foundation, which sponsored it, stressed that the delegates who attended carry enough weight in their communities to make a difference.
The aim of the conference is to make a positive contribution toward resolving religious conflict wherever it arises. According to the Jewish representative of Moroccan King Mohammed VI, Andre Azoulay, "the word of God has been kidnapped." He added that it's no longer enough for religious representatives to watch from the sidelines as religion is used by those who preach hatred.
Things got off to a strong start: Rather than wait for the workshop sessions, Israel's Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, called at the opening ceremony for the formation of an international association of religious groups, a sort of United Nations of Religions.
There also were signs of mutual understanding, as when Abdulaziz Othman, director general of the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, angrily called for an international law to stop the publication of offensive material such as the cartoons of the Islamic prophet Mohammed. The furor over the recent publication of such cartoons touched off violent riots throughout the Muslim world. Rabbi Michael Melchior, chief rabbi of Norway and a former Israeli Cabinet minister, responded by condemning disrespectful attacks on any faith.
There also was a willingness on both sides to take some level of criticism. When an Israeli rabbi harangued Muslims for not standing up sufficiently to Osama bin Laden, imams in the audience listened respectfully.
But rather than presenting specific ideas for joint initiatives, many of the religious leaders still seemed to behave as if it were the first congress of this sort, proud that rabbis and imams were simply meeting and talking together.
Meanwhile, difficult and relevant questions often were swept aside.
On the issue of terrorism, the leaders condemned any act of violence in the name of religion. When pushed to comment on how this might apply to Palestinian suicide bombers, however, al-Falouji instead demanded that Israel change its policy toward the Palestinians.
When rabbis were asked to comment on the conditions that could lead to a sharing of the Holy Land, Rabbi Daniel Sperber from Bar-Ilan University in Israel said that was an issue for politicians.
Tensions were never far from the surface, even over coffee, where al-Falouji argued with Stuart Altshuler, a rabbi at Congregation Kol HaNeshamah in Irvine, over the status of Jerusalem and West Bank land the Palestinians claim.
Faced with difficult questions from journalists, the rabbis and imams often would respond with bromides about believing in the same God and how peace begins with dialogue.
To break down barriers, the organizers brought in a Philadelphia communications specialist. Wearing a cowboy hat and barking orders into his microphone, he encouraged the religious leaders to write down their "issues" on pieces of paper, then line up to announce them to the audience.
These "open sessions" became the focus of the conference. Rabbis and imams lined up to announce issues ranging from anti-Semitism in Iran to Islamophobia, from gender equality to Holocaust denial. The list was endless.
Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress' Policy Council, rejected the idea that Jewish-Muslim tensions lie at the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He added that "religious crusaders" like Ahmadinejad "must be exposed for what they are: Impostors."