.- U.S. President Barack Obama delivered an address to the Muslim world on Thursday at Cairo University, calling for religious tolerance, an end to violent extremism, and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Christian leaders from the Middle East described the speech as a “clear change,” but asked that the president’s words be backed up by action. The president said in his speech that relations between the West and Islam have included “coexistence and cooperation but also conflict and religious wars.” Remarking that colonialism and the Cold War had helped feed tensions, he said “violent extremists” like those who committed the 9/11 attacks had made some Americans fearful and mistrustful of Islam.
“So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end,” he said.
Describing “civilization’s debt to Islam,” the president claimed that American Muslims have enriched the United States since its founding.
The president quoted “the Holy Koran” several times in his speech. He also cited the Bible and the Talmud once each.
Criticizing Americans’ stereotypes of Muslims, he also said that America does not fit the “crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”
Praising American traditions of religious freedom, he said: “Islam is a part of America. And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations.”
Insisting that the United States is not “at war with Islam,” he denounced toleration of violent extremists.
He also described plans to invest in building Pakistani and Afghan infrastructure, schools and hospitals before saying America has the responsibilities of helping Iraq forge its future and to “leave Iraq to Iraqis.”
Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Obama professed respect for both the Palestinian and the Jewish people.
Noting historical persecution of Jews, he also said Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians, have suffered “in pursuit of a homeland.”
President Obama pointed to the stalemate between the two peoples, and called for a two-state resolution to the conflict so that Israelis and Palestinians may each live in “peace and security.”
“Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed,” he said, noting the advance of American blacks in the peaceful U.S. civil rights movement.
“At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's,” he said, rejecting the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.
“Israel must also live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society,” he said, declaring the Gaza humanitarian crisis to be a threat to Israel’s security.
Rejecting the use of the Arab-Israeli conflict to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems, he called on Arab states to assist in resolving the conflict.
“Too many tears have been shed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them, joined in prayer,” President Obama remarked, using a Muslim expression.
Turning to the issue of democracy, he rejected imposing democracy but pledged support for “human rights.”
“Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them.”
He also pledged support for “all elected, peaceful governments” provided they govern with respect for “all their people.”
Praising what he called Islam’s “proud tradition of tolerance,” he called for preserving “religious diversity” for Marionites and Copts while calling for an end to divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Discussing women’s rights, he said all humanity must be allowed “to reach their full potential.”
Several Middle East Christian leaders responded positively to the president’s speech.
The Guardian of the Holy Land, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, told SIR news that the speech marked a “clear change” that will be welcomed in the Arab world.
“It encourages our hopes for the future,” he said.
Fr. Pizzaballa remarked that President Obama was “very balanced” in confirming a link with Israel but also assuming a “new position” with the Arab world.
“This new position is a new beginning, a change of strategy and relationships which will give a further impulse to the search for a solution of the main problem, the one of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Change will imply sacrifices by both Israel and Palestinians, who will have to reconsider their positions, he said.
Fr. Pizzaballa said it was an “important novelty” that President Obama addressed Hamas and asked for the immediate acknowledgment of Israel. Also notable was the president’s acknowledgement of peaceful nuclear plants for Iran.
“Maybe Israel didn’t like those themes,” the Guardian added. “Obama pledged with respect to both Israel and Palestinians, in a balanced way.”
“Certainly, the U.S. want a new image before the Arab world; today, that image is negative. However, one speech is not enough, real facts are necessary. Today I saw a sincere, resolute and transparent Obama,” Fr. Pizzaballa told SIR.
The Chaldean Bishop of Cairo Youssef Sarraf, who was present at the University of Cairo for the speech, told SIR the president’s words were important but needed to be supported by action.
“This speech would have been necessary long ago,” he said. “The U.S. president had the courage to make it, choosing Egypt for its position and its weight in the Middle East and in the Muslim world.”
The message of the speech, he said, is to encourage cooperation to address “a whole agenda” of issues such as democracy, terrorism, religious freedom, human rights, the dignity of women and globalization. These issues, Bishop Sarraf said, are “the core of debate between moderates and fundamentalists in the Muslim world.”
“We hope that Islam and the Arab world will be able to accept this helping hand.”