More than 150 Islamic and Christian leaders and clerics from Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan came together in a Cairo hotel for a three-day dialogue between the International Islamic Forum for Dialogue and the Middle East Council of Churches.

The two bodies had agreed last July to hold regular sessions.

"The origin of all celestial religions is one, and their message is one, and that is to propagate virtue, good behaviour and obedience to God," said Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the grand shaikh of al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's most prestigious centre of learning.

Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the meeting he rejected the idea of a conflict of religions or civilisations.

Uniting force

"Religions do not conflict but they endeavour to promote sublime human values and spread them through tolerance, peace, love and cooperation," he said.

"The origin of all celestial religions is one, and their message is one, and that is to propagate virtue, good behaviour and obedience to God"

Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the grand shaikh of al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's top centre of learning

The Copts, who account for about 10% of Egypt's population, generally live in harmony with Muslims, but they complain of discrimination, especially in the job market and in obtaining permission to build churches.

"The lowering of values, the absence of justice, and the confusion among people is the root of the tree of corruption, and the source of the security and stability crisis," said Hamid bin Ahmad al-Rifai, the chief of the International Islamic Forum for Dialogue.

The secretary-general of the Middle East Council of Churches, Gerges Ibrahim Saleh, said both Islamic and Christian teachings reject injustice and aim to "establish a society of peace based on justice and the sharing of natural resources".