Blair seeks religious leader unity on Jerusalem

WASHINGTON — Former British Prime Minister and Middle East envoy Tony Blair called Wednesday for a joint appeal by Jerusalem’s religious leaders on keeping the holy city open to all faiths even as tensions flare.

Blair, speaking at a forum on religious understanding at Georgetown University, said it was crucial to recognize and address the religious dimension of the Middle East conflict.

“One of the things we’ve been trying to organize is a statement by the rabbinate and the Christian leaders and the Muslim leaders about Jerusalem and about Jerusalem being an open city or worship for people of all the Abrahamic faiths,” Blair said.

“Unless we’re prepared to recognize that dimension and to act upon it, then I think that we fail in our duty,” he said.

Blair serves as the envoy for the so-called Quartet on the Middle East peace process – the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

He was due later Wednesday to hold talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the latest developments in the region, which US special envoy George Mitchell is now visiting.

Tensions have run high since Sunday when Israeli authorities closed the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, saying that people were inciting violence.

Blair said the Middle East reminded him of Northern Ireland, where a 1998 deal brokered by Mitchell largely ended three decades of strife pitting Catholics against pro-British Protestants and British forces.

“They say to me, ‘It’s not really about religion, you know. It’s about politics’,” Blair said of discussions in the two places.

“I say, that’s fine. Unfortunately, a lot of people involved in the conflict think it’s about religion. And so you can’t actually separate out the religious dimension from the conflict,” he said.