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Holy days of three religions converge at talks

January 06, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Delegates from Syria and Israel who are trying to hammer out a peace deal in Shepherdstown will take a break this weekend to honor traditions of three different religions.

The Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown tonight, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ends this weekend and members of the Eastern Orthodox religion celebrate Christmas today.

Although Syria has a Muslim majority, about 10 percent of the population is Christian, mostly Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.

"For Syrians, you're talking about two religions," said BBC Arabic Service radio correspondent Hafez Mirazi, who is covering the peace talks. "This is a very important distinction between the Syrians' and Israelis' faith."

Many of the radical Palestinian groups based in Syria are Christian, Mirazi said.

"It's funny, because in the West, people confuse (the issue)," he said.

Christians occupy high-level positions in government, Mirazi said. For instance, the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations and a general on the negotiating team are Christian, Mirazi said.

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For Muslims, Ramadan ends today or Saturday, depending on where you live. It is not a fixed date because it is based upon when an observer sees certain phases of the moon, Mirazi said.

For most of the Arab world, the end is today. But Syrians will observe the end Saturday.

Mirazi said he is unsure how members of the Syrian delegation will mark the holiday.

"It could be just a prayer somewhere. They could go to Washington to the mosque," he said.

Mirazi said the end of Ramadan is an important holiday in Syria, even for non-Muslims, in much the same way that Christmas is a national holiday in America.

Many Israeli negotiators will mark the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy, said individual delegates will observe the day in their own way. Orthodox Jews began preparations Thursday, he said.

Most probably will participate in a traditional service in their hotel. The Sabbath normally includes a meal with family.

"That, of course, cannot be done" in Shepherdstown," he said.

Regev said the Jewish delegates can light candles and bless the bread and wine. Rabbis are not required for the ceremony.

Even those who do not attend services will avoid activity, Regev said.

"For all Israelis, the Sabbath is a day of rest," he said.

Regev said Israeli negotiators appreciated the invitation of Congregation B'nai Abraham in Hagerstown to attend services tonight. But he said those who most likely would want to attend - Orthodox Jews - cannot ride in automobiles on the Sabbath.

As in the United States, Syrians and Israelis display differing levels of devoutness.

Not all Muslims, for example, pray five times a day facing Mecca.

But Mirazi said even less religious Muslims tend to follow religious rules more closely during Ramadan, a period when Muslims forsake food and drink from sunrise to sunset.

Muslims also abstain from alcohol during Ramadan.

Islam discourages alcohol throughout the year, but the less devout do drink, Mirazi said.

"You would be considered a spoiled, modern secular guy," he said. "But it is not as offending."

Regev estimated 15 percent of Israelis are Orthodox Jews, 15 percent secular and the rest somewhere in between.

"There are those who take the religion quite seriously and those that have a more modernistic, you could say liberal, attitude," he said.

For all of the differences separating Syria and Israel, Mirazi and Regev agreed religion is not one of them.

"I don't think the dispute is at all based on religious considerations," Regev said.

U.S. officials said they tried to accommodate the parties' religious needs, such as dietary restrictions.

"We do whatever we can like any host would," said State Department spokesman Philip Reeker.

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