By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
June 24, 2007 – A meeting of Iraqi religious leaders from various sects and faiths has opened a door for further progress on reining in factional violence in Iraq, said the top U.S. chaplain in the country. The Iraqi Inter-Religious Congress, held June 12-13 in Baghdad, brought together 55 representatives of the most influential clerics and religious dignitaries from around the country. In doing so, it potentially set a precedent for continued dialogue on how to reconcile the Iraqi people, Army Chaplain (Col.) Micheal Hoyt, command chaplain for Multinational Force Iraq, said during a June 21 conference call with online journalists.
Hoyt said the gathering comprised the "largest representation of faith groups and geographic dispersion from north, south, east and west in Iraq at a religious conference in 37 years." As such, "it was a pretty historic event," he observed.
Delegates to the congress were selected by the country's various faith groups to include people with national-level influence, Hoyt said. He emphasized that despite Defense Department funding, it was an Iraqi-led event, encouraged by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a way to potentially slow the spread of bloodshed in the country.
"He was overwhelmingly supportive of this event," Hoyt noted. "The agreement (reached by the congress) was the first of its kind to receive the personal endorsement of the prime minister."
Representatives of Shiite clerics Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr attended, as did delegates from the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars. Other notables included the Iraqi minister of human rights, an advisor to Maliki, and 11 members of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, Hoyt said.
Together they forged a resolution Hoyt characterized as "the first broad-based religious accord to support and recognize the legitimacy of the government of Iraq."
The delegates also rejected terrorism and sectarian violence, the chaplain said.
Their agreement was the first to "publicly renounce al Qaeda by name, and to publicly declare that the spread of arms and unauthorized weapons is to be viewed as a criminal act in Iraq," Hoyt said.
"It's the first religious accord that provides a way ahead for a committed public action by religious leaders to denounce violence, deny terrorism, demonstrate support for democratic principles and the constitution, and to display national unity," he continued.
An equally important insertion, Hoyt noted, was a call for action to the Iraqi government, urging it to build on the good will generated by this and other reconciliation conferences, past and present.
The government was requested to look back at some of the secular gatherings that have taken place at the tribal level and "see what (can be brought) forward out of them into an overall package of reconciliation," Hoyt explained.
Other national conferences will follow, the chaplain said.
"It's part of process, a prolonged process," he noted, "to build this grass roots religious leader voice, so that the government of Iraq and the religious leaders of Iraq ... (can) have a platform to establish a dialogue."
In addition, he said, those leaders will direct a host of regional-level conferences to follow up on the national dialogues.
Despite the consensus for peace that came out of the gathering, Hoyt cautioned against a rush to optimism.
"The Iraqi Inter-Religious Congress is not the silver bullet. It's a part of the ammunition belt used to help stabilize this country," he said.
Whether there will be concrete progress on reconciliation "just remains to be seen," Hoyt said. "We'll just see if we can get a voice loud enough and good enough to actually make something happen, or if it's kind of overwhelmed by other events that are also of national and international (strategic) importance."
Still, he added, "I have to believe that their message is having some level of decisive impact on the restraint of violence."
Maintaining an interfaith dialogue and translating it into government action and political reconciliation is the goal of his own outreach efforts, Hoyt explained. In the wake of the congress, he said he remains encouraged progress can be made.
"Before there just wasn't anything to build off of; now there is," he said. "Where it's going to go is anybody's guess, but it couldn't have gone anywhere had this not occurred."
(Tim Kilbride is assigned to New Media, American Forces Information Service.)