Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders holding talks in Istanbul

Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders meeting in Istanbul Monday said religious figures have an obligation to be the voice of conciliation and peace, and not to incite religious conflict. The leaders met at the beginning of a three-day conference called Peace and Tolerance II, devoted to interreligious cooperation for peace in southeastern Europe, the Balkans and Central Asia - regions that have recently been rife with religious conflict.

The spiritual leaders said it was time for them to become part of the solution, and not the problem.

The conference was held at the invitation of Istanbul-based Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, and was co-sponsored by the New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation.

In the elegant lobby of the Swissotel in Istanbul, men with white beards and hats signifying varying sects of the three monotheistic faiths embraced and chatted before the conference began.

A citizen of overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey and chief representative of one of the largest Christian churches in the world, Bartholomew has been praised for his devotion to conciliation among faiths, including to healing the centuries-old rift with the Catholic Church.

Previous conferences co-sponsored by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation have brought together religious leaders in Vienna, Istanbul and Switzerland. In 1994, the representatives at the gathering adopted the Berne Declaration, which stated that a "crime perpetrated in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion."

The opening of the current conference was attended by Turkey's chief rabbi, the chief Islamic and Catholic representatives of Kosovo, the Armenian patriarch of Istanbul, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, the Turkish Minister of Religious Affairs, and religious leaders from the Caucasus and Central Asia, the AP reports.

U.S. President George W. Bush, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, President of the European Commission Jose Manual Barroso and Pope Benedict XVI sent letters of welcome to be read by their representatives. A.M.

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