Egyptian Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal warned the Interreligious Affairs Commission of the American Jewish Committee this week against confusing politics and religion in resolving thorny political disputes.
"If we are going into the settlement of political issues on a religious basis then we complicate the political issues," Ghorbal told the commission during a day-long meeting here Monday. It was Ghorbal's first appearance before an AJC commission.
"Sometimes, inadvertently, we try to give a name to certain political events; we make a mistake by giving them a religious name," he said.
Ghormal, who is an Islamic scholar as well as a diplomat, cited recent events in Iran to prove his point. "What happened [in Iran] is not an Islamic revolution," he said, "it is a political revolution . . . It just happened that the head of the revolutionary forces was a religious man, an ayatollah.
"Definitely, one does not agree with what the Iranian militants are doing in holding hostages" of American embassy personnel, he continued, "but that is one thing and a religious revolution is another."
Ghorbal observed that the Middle East was the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The region, he said, "has been endowed by the fact that from there the revelation descended on Moses and the prophets of the three religions."
He added that "when things get difficult we should turn to meditation with our Creator" and abide by "what He taught us -- tolerance, brotherhood, love, peace and co-living."
Muslims and Jews, he said, "are looking for the same thing but maybe from different angles . . . We could differ but that doesn't mean we need to quarrel."
He criticized the harnessing of religion "to serve national and political ends," which he said tended to bring [Christians and Moslems and Jews] into a quarrel unnecessarily.
The difficulty of separating religion from politics, particularly in the Middle East, was immediately apparrent in remarks from Israel Ambassador Ephraim Evron, who followed Ghorbal to the rostrum.
Evron took the occasion to "correct," he said, Ghorbal's assertion that Israel base its settlements on the West Bank on what the Egyptian called "a Bibical commandment."
"Judea and Samaria" -- the Bibical names for the site of the controversial settlements -- "are the birthplace of our nationhood," Evron declared.
"If we feel we have a right to live in Hebron and Ramallah" -- two West Bank towns with overwhelmingly Arab population and control -- "it is not because we have been ordered to do so by the Bible," the Israeli diplomat said.
In the end, Ghorbal acknowledged that "we have not delved very deeply into religious matters, but we have been motivated by religion."
The need, he added, "is to talk about these things openly, from a rational viewpoint. If we don't we will end up going back to the United Nations, each [side] sitting alone, telling ourselves how righteous we are, and every five years, spilling each other's blood."
Rabbi March H. Tannenbaum, who heads the Interreligious Affairs Commission, said the commission is considering starting a "high-level dialogue" between scholars in the United States and Egypt. "We want to build on the model of Christian-Jewish dialogues with Catholics, evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox and others, all of which have created a different atmosphere in the United States," he said.
During Monday's meeting here the Commission presented its Interreligious Award to Msgr. George Higgins, veternam ecumenist and staff member of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.