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Issue Date:  April 30, 2004

Candid dialogue called first step to peace


The second day of dialogue had hardly begun when an explosion occurred. An Israeli rabbi named Shlomo was explaining how he had formed a warm friendship with a Muslim man during a trip to Switzerland. As they parted, said Shlomo, the Muslim gave him a variety of “seeds of peace” so that he might grow new trees and flowers on his return to Israel. Suddenly, Ibrahim, a Palestinian Muslim, began to shout in Hebrew, and many seconds passed before he calmed down and his words could be translated.

“Easy for you to come back here and plant your seeds,” said Ibrahim, who teaches at a Palestinian university. “You have the power, you have the control. You have stolen our land, you have stolen the future of our children, while we struggle every day just to live!”

The outburst seemed to momentarily stun the group of 23 sitting in a circle. But it had a catalytic effect, opening up a discussion of extraordinary candor. We had gathered here March 2 and 3 at the Rachem Rachel Hotel on the outskirts of Jerusalem at the invitation of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. The parliament will hold a major convocation in July in Barcelona, Spain, expected to draw upwards of 10,000 people. One of the focuses of the event is religious violence, and the participants in Jerusalem, mostly Jewish and Muslim but also Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, were modeling an interfaith discussion technique on this volatile topic.

Jerusalem seemed an appropriate setting for conversation on the role religion plays in world violence. It is the conviction of Dirk Ficca, executive director of the council (and an American Presbyterian minister), that global problems are best addressed not by pronouncements from religious and political leaders, but by individuals and grass-roots groups inspired by their various religions and committed to “simple and profound acts.” Many in the room were, in fact, already involved in some form of interreligious action, and the conversation had been quite civil -- and a bit boring at times -- until Ibrahim lost his composure.

In halting English, a young Muslim woman named Ibtisam Muhamid responded, “We must distinguish between violence that is caused by politics and violence caused by religious difference.” The problem, she said, “comes from our religious history. Abraham had two women, Sarah, the preferred one, and Hagar, who was rejected.” After all this time, she said, looking directly at Shlomo, descendent of Sarah’s son Isaac, and Ibrahim, descendent of Hagar’s Ishmael, “their children are still fighting. When will it end? Aren’t we all going to be buried in the same ground?”

Someone suggested that attention must be paid to the inherent danger in those religions -- Christianity and Islam, in particular -- that claim to have the universal truth and exclusive access to God. Shlomo agreed. “It is necessary first of all to regard every individual as a human,” he said, “not a member of some faith.”

Again, Ibrahim erupted. “How does Judaism regard Muslims? You know very well there is a rabbi in Jerusalem who says Palestinians are like snakes and God is sorry he created them.”

“Do not put everybody in the same book,” said Shlomo.

Others took off from there. “Why must we always go back to a story thousands of years old about God choosing one over another?” said a young Israeli student. “Why must that determine everything?’

“It doesn’t have to,” replied another Israeli student. “The trouble is that everyone chooses the interpretation he likes best.”

Ficca seemed delighted at the high energy. “What is keeping people all over from having these kinds of conversations?” he asked.

“Fear,” said Elana Rosenberg, a Jewish woman who grew up in Chicago, married an Israeli man, and moved with him to Israel. “People are terrified, they’re violently angry, they want revenge.”

“Greed,” suggested a Swedish Lutheran minister who pastors a church in Jerusalem. “People want to keep their privileges, they won’t sacrifice. Just look at the wall that’s going up -- taking more and more of the land.”

“Lack of hope,” said an American psychologist, “fed by a press that focuses on the negative.”

“Memory,” said a middle-aged Israeli woman. “We remember too much. God has forgotten things and we’re still busy about them. We remember so much and forget that God sent life for enjoyment, not for arguing and killing.”

The frustration on the faces and in the voices of these self-identified healers and peacemakers was painful to witness. So Ficca asked, “What made you take a first step?”

Traveling around the world, said an Israeli university student, she found it easier to make Muslim friends in Egypt than in Israel where tensions are so palpable. Several others concurred that getting away from the area, even for a short time, helped them break down stereotypes and return to the troubled land with fresh eyes.

The church itself is a first step, said an Italian priest who pastors a Catholic parish in Galilee. People unite around the parish school, which has Christian, Muslim and Druze students, he said, “and the parents share what is common -- their concern for their children.”

Rosenberg gave perhaps the most touching response. When she was sitting by the bedside of her son who was seriously injured by a Palestinian car bomb, she said, she knew she must try personally to dialogue with people on the other side. “I had to,” she said, “to escape this terrible fear.” She got involved with the Interfaith Encounter Association, an organization founded in Israel in 2001 promoting ever-larger circles of interfaith discussion. Today it claims some 4,000 Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Druze participants. Rosenberg is now a leader in the association, which has had unexpected success in forming women’s interfaith groups.

“I believe women are the bridge, the solution,” she said. “Men mirror the aggressive, confrontational aspects of God. We feel women can make a difference, given the chance.” She noted that there are no women in leadership positions in any of the three major religions in the Holy Land. “They are all patriarchal, they are all male-dominated. All of society is dominated by male energy and male justice. Look! It’s all over the Middle East.”

Ibtisam Muhamid, also deeply involved with the Interfaith Encounter Association, said it has enabled her to pull down the “walls of isolation” from around herself. She leads a discussion group of some 40 Christian, Jewish and Muslim women in her town in northern Palestine. When they meet monthly, they not only share their hopes and fears, she said, they stay overnight in each other’s homes, share one another’s food, and learn one another’s traditions.

But when Dotan, another Isreali student, reported on his own interfaith efforts in the area around his home on the West Bank, the chasm between Jew and Muslim reappeared. “It is not easy,” he said. “If you associate with Muslims, you’re seen as left-wing. You pay a high price when you cross the line.”

Mention of the West Bank roused Ibrahim. “You are the occupiers,” he said, staring at Dotan. “You cut down our olive trees, you put up your houses on the West Bank, on our land, and then build barriers between us. Do you see what we’re up against?”

Related Web Site

Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions

Everyone saw, but it was time for lunch. Later in the afternoon, emotions having quieted, Ficca asked the participants if they felt moved, on the basis of the discussion, to take some new action on returning to their own communities. Those already involved in dialogue pledged to work harder and bring more people to the table, while others said they would discuss with their own circles what they had seen and heard. No real solutions had been proposed, yet no one, even Ibrahim, could dismiss the simple and profound commitments of these people.

Later, Stephen Perkins, a community organizer from Chicago, trustee on the parliament’s council and participant in the Jerusalem meeting, told me, “Experiencing the depth of inter-group conflict, observing how hard it is to make headway, is itself progress, I think. Yes, it is sobering, but these relationships across the boundaries are a necessary first step.”

Could exchanges such as we had ever lead to structural political proposals altering the bloody Israeli-Palestinian stalemate? “I think so,” he said, “because I’m convinced only religion holds the leverage to draw people together and the belief that transformation is possible, that the dead past need not determine the future.”

It is the hope of Perkins, Ficca and others that thousands will engage in candid dialogues in Barcelona in July, and from such delicate roots a groundswell of simple and profound acts will begin springing up to challenge the pessimism and sense of hopelessness that grips world affairs.

Robert McClory, a longtime contributor to NCR, attended the dialogue as an invited participant.

Revived interfaith parliament to hold fourth gathering

The Parliament of the World’s Religions held its first meeting in connection with the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Some 8,000 people turned out as representatives from religious bodies East and West met and spoke from the same stage. The star of the event was the charismatic Indian swami, Vivekenanda, who pleaded for an end to war and violence. But the hundred years that followed turned out to be the most violent in human history. The parliament did not reconvene.

In 1993 a group of interfaith activists organized at last a second parliament event, which drew another 8,000 to Chicago. It was decided to hold one approximately every five years. The third, held in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999, attracted 7,000. The fourth, scheduled for Barcelona, Spain, July 7-13, will address four crucial global issues: religious violence, refugees, world debt and water resources. The parliament meetings are neither organized nor controlled by institutional religious leaders but by a huge network of congregations and communities that are committed to using their spiritual resources for creating world peace.

-- Robert McClory

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 2004

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