Olympic Spirit Drives Interfaith Meeting

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published August 13, 2004, issue of August 13, 2004.
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A delegation of rabbis flew to Athens this week in an effort to bring the positive Olympic spirit to the contentious arena of religious relations. But it appears that this unprecedented endeavor will require some Olympic-class heavy lifting.

The rabbis, all interfaith experts, were invited by leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church to meet with nearly 200 Muslim, Orthodox Christian, Catholic and Buddhist representatives from around the world in a conference called Religion, Peace and the Olympic Ideal.

The interfaith conference, being held at the town hall in Amaroussion, was assembled in anticipation of the Athens Olympic Games, which begin Friday night in this same municipality.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual head of the Greek Orthodox Church, told participants Tuesday that it was time for religious leaders to take the Olympic ideals that athletes use to achieve physical perfection and apply them to perfecting humanity so it can live in coexistence and peace.

“I think Bartholomew being here is quite remarkable, and him calling for a conference like this is unique,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, one of a half-dozen Jewish representatives at the conference. “I think this is an expression of the willingness of Bartholomew to put the resources of his church behind not just spreading his own gospel, but about spreading the interfaith spirit.”

The conference hoped to compose “an Olympic Charter for Peace” at the end of the two-day session. But like an errant javelin toss, the message went off-course almost immediately after the conference began.

At the opening reception, two Iranian Muslim clerics walked out of the room when Israel’s ambassador to Greece, Ram Aviram, rose to speak.

“It is clear to everybody in the Jewish delegation that it was intentional,” Bretton-Granatoor told the Forward in a phone interview from Athens.

And in his opening remarks, Greek Church ecumenical leader Metropolitan Emmanuel of Paris expressed frustration about the difficulty in finding Muslim dialogue partners, particularly from Arab countries, Bretton-Granatoor reported.

There were Muslim representatives from non-Arab countries — Serbia, Khazakhstan and Azerbaijan — as well as Sheikh Dr. Zaki Badawi, chairman of the Imam Mosques Council of the United Kingdom.

There was also one Muslim representative from Egypt’s Supreme Court of Islamic Affairs, but the representatives from Syria were Christian.

There were two representatives from Libya’s World Islamic Call Society, including its secretary general, Dr. Mohamed Ahmed Sherif, who chaired a discussion called “The Olympic Ideal and Peaceful Coexistence Amongst all Peoples.”

WICS describes itself as an Islamic benevolent society with United Nations recognition that receives millions of dollars from Libya to support mosques, schools and medical centers. But a counter-terrorism expert told the Forward that the group has been linked to terrorist activity around the world. “They’ve invested a lot of effort to legitimize themselves in the interfaith community, but they are in Islamist group and have funded terrorist activities outside of Libya,” said Yehudit Barsky, director of the division on Middle East and international terrorism for the American Jewish Committee.

In 2000, the WICS General Congress called for jihad against Western “tyranny and imperialism,” “sacrifice until martyrdom” and “liberation of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean,” according to a report in the Ottawa Citizen, which noted that “explicit in this manifesto is the eradication of Israel.”

The Jewish delegation consisted of members of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, an umbrella group made up of representatives from Jewish communal and denominational leaders. Rabbis attending included IJCIC co-chairman Rabbi Joel Meyers; IJCIC secretary Rabbi Leon Feldman; Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee; Rabbi Arthur Schneier, founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, and Ambassador Shmuel Hadas, chairman of the Israeli Interreligious Committee.

Bretton-Granatoor said Bartho-lomew stressed that the positive ideals and spirit of the Olympics also carried a religious message — honoring the Greek god Zeus — when the games were first born in Olympia, Greece, in 776 BCE.

But Bretton-Granatoor said he intended to remind the conference about how the Olympic spirit has been corrupted in recent decades, first by Adolf Hitler in 1936 in the so-called Nazi Olympics, and again in 1972 in Munich, when 11 Israeli athletes were savagely murdered by Palestinian terrorists. IJCIC representatives planned to ask the conference for a moment of silence to honor the slain Israeli Olympians.

“If you want to talk about the Olympic ideal, you cannot do so without recognizing the failures of such events in the past,” Bretton-Granatoor said.

While in Athens, IJCIC representatives expected to finalize plans with the Ecumenical Patriarchate for a major international interfaith conference in Istanbul in October that will include Christians, Muslims and Jews. It is expected to be first official meeting of its kind among the three groups.

“In initiating dialogue with some Muslim groups,” said Pinchas Shapiro, an interreligious affairs officer at the World Jewish Congress, “we have to get to zero before we can even think of moving forward.”

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