RELIGION: Interfaith dialogue in Israel-Palestine
Mohammed Abu-Nimer

February 1, 2006

WASHINGTON DC -- For the last two decades scholars and practitioners of peace have promoted the hypothesis that religions and religious actors can be sources of peace and pluralism, and not only sources of war, violence and conflict. Others are less sure of the benefits of including a religious aspect in resolving conflicts. In Israel-Palestine, some even feel that the inclusion of religious actors does more harm than good in attempting to resolve the conflict.

It is usually incorrect to view any conflict as being caused or dominated by one source or dimension. Thus, religion and religious identity in places of conflict like Northern Ireland, the Philippines, India or Israel/Palestine should be seen as one influential factor among several others, such as economics or politics.

Nevertheless, in a context like the Israel-Palestine conflict, religion has been manipulated by the three religious groups involved to fuel and perpetuate past and current violence (religious symbols, rituals and sites are constantly brought into the conflict dynamics). It is, therefore, crucial to constructively engage people`s religious identity as a source of peace and pluralism to counter its manipulation in the cycle of political violence.

Having completed a study that examined interfaith dialogue in five Middle Eastern societies of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, it became clear that many civil societies and some of these governments understand the potential constructive role that interreligious meetings can play in bridging the gaps within each society.

However, there are few interfaith initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians in the region. Some of the reasons that Palestinians gave for demonstrating caution in participating in such meetings were the risk of normalizing the occupation; frustration resulting from the failed Oslo peace process; the fact that Jewish-Israeli organizations are the initiators of these activities; and that most of these meetings avoid focusing on the political reality of occupation and oppression.

A Christian priest declared in one of the study`s interviews: `I have participated in interfaith dialogue for over 15 years, but after the second intifada, I could not do it anymore. They kill our children during the day and we dialogue with them at night. I found that impossible to tolerate.`

Despite the above critique and reasons for rejecting interfaith work, a few interfaith initiatives do offer an exceptional opportunity for Muslims, Christians and Jews to discuss their faiths in a peaceful setting. As a result, they contribute to breaking down negative stereotypes; learning more about other faith groups (their rituals, ceremonies and basic tenets); and, most importantly, rehumanizing the `enemy`.

In a reality of hatred, suicide bombings and 40 years of occupation and humiliation, images of the other side are dehumanized and the two people have no space (social, public or even personal) to meet face to face. Under such circumstances, interfaith dialogue becomes a rare window through which Arabs and Jews view each other as humans and learn to cope with their mutual ignorance of each other`s faiths.

Among the successful initiatives is the well-cited January 2002 Alexandria meeting, convened by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, and hosted by the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi.

This resulted in the first ever declaration signed by leaders of all the faiths in the Holy Land, including the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Bakshi-Doron; the Chief Justice of the Sharia Courts, Sheikh Taisir Tamimi; the Latin Patriarch, His Beatitude Michel Sabbah; deputy foreign minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior; and the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, the Rt. Reverend Riah Abul Assal.

Their statement called for the Palestinian and Israeli governments to implement a peace process and, as religious leaders, they pledged to continue a joint quest for a just peace that would lead to reconciliation in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, for the common good of all our peoples. They also announced the establishment of a permanent joint committee to carry out the recommendations of this declaration, and to engage with their respective political leaderships accordingly.

Unfortunately, escalating violence reduced the impact of this important declaration and its translation into immediate practical steps on the ground. However, the recent inauguration of a Palestinian/Israeli Religious Leaders Council and the establishment of interfaith centers in Jerusalem and Gaza can be seen as offshoots of the Alexandria process.

Although interfaith dialogue is not going to resolve the conflict and end the occupation, many Palestinian participants continue to attend such dialogues in hopes of educating Israeli Jews about their national aspirations and accurately presenting their Muslim and Christian faiths and their basic tenets.

Similarly, Jews who attend these meetings, though they understand that they are meeting with politically `marginalized` Palestinians, discover that they are alike in their desire for peace and rejection of violence.

`We are the only space where women can talk about religion and peace,` declared an Israeli Jewish woman participating in one of the very few interfaith women`s groups in the Middle East. In this group, Christian, Jewish and Muslim women gather on a regular basis to discuss their views and explore their perceptions of their faiths and traditions.

Clearly these interfaith groups face many limitations and obstacles, including lack of funding, little government support and the continuing conflict. In addition, Israeli and Palestinian policymakers are not usually involved with, or even updated on, these initiatives. Sometimes, long-term planning is also missing.

Despite the above shortcomings, interfaith dialogue does have the potential to play an important and necessary role in helping people and politicians realize that they cannot resolve the conflict in the Holy Land without genuine input and consideration from its religious communities.

Most importantly, interfaith dialogues provide an all too rare opportunity for Christians, Jews and Muslims to work together as fellow human beings in the joint pursuit of conquering their mutual ignorance and learning to live together in peace.

Mohammed Abu-Nimer is an associate professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University`s School of International Service in Washington, DC, and is the director of the Peacebuilding and Development Institute. Acknowledgement to Common Ground News Service