Egypt hosts interfaith conference without any Jews

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Representatives from 71 nations and international personalities, including former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, were scheduled to attend.

The Vatican representative was apparently absent from the plenary session.

"The decision by Mahmoud Zazouk, Egypt's minister of religious endowment, to exclude Jewish leaders from the conference flies in the face of its stated goal to promote tolerance and a moderate image of Islam," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center.

Cooper said he perceived the snub as "a chilling political statement."

"Peace in the Middle East means more than sterile documents and treaties; it means people talking with each other in open and frank dialogue," he said.

Sheik Mohammed Gouzou, a high-ranking Muslim clergyman from Lebanon, reportedly said that "we want dialogue."

"But Israel is cunning incarnate," Gouzou added. "We cannot dialogue with those Jewish hard-liners, and as for the small attendance of Christians, we'll just say what we have to say and whoever wants to listen can do so."

Cooper added that he was particularly puzzled at the exclusion of the Jews in light of a "warm and open" three-hour meeting he held last year with then-Grand Mufti Sheik Tantawi.

"We hope that this outrageous decision doesn't signal a further chilling in Egypt's relations with Israel and the Jewish world," Cooper said.

Representatives from Iraq and Iran were also absent from the gathering.