Interfaith Cooperation: Promoting Peace in the Middle East

In a rare calendrical coincidence, Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem, Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza witnessed the near concurrence of sacred religious day --  the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and Eid Al-Adha.  Although the dates were harmonious, the Jews and Muslims commemorating the religious occasions did so against the backdrop of increased violence at Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem and heightened tensions in the West Bank and Israel.

From September 16-21, in the lead-up to Yom Kippur and Eid Al-Adha, Special Representative to Muslim Communities Shaarik Zafar, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman, and I traveled together for the first time to the Middle East to explore ways to promote inter-religious dialogue and literacy as a response to violence.

During our visit, we met with Palestinian and Israeli religious and governmental leaders troubled by the daily reality of renewed violence. We heard from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza about the difficulties they face in starting a business or getting an education with restricted freedom of movement and opportunities, or providing leadership to the next generation in the face of the political struggle. Israelis discussed the negative impact of anti-normalization (when Palestinians refrain from cooperating with Israelis because they say it sustains a status quo of inequality) on peace-building efforts and the ongoing challenge of addressing inequality among diverse populations in their society.  Our delegation visited religious sites -- a church, a mosque, a cemetery, and a synagogue -- that were targets of vandalism and violence in recent months. 

In the shadow of halted peace talks, heightened mistrust, fears for personal safety, and exacerbated social divisions among Israelis and Palestinians, it is possible to feel a sense of hopelessness.

And yet there is hope. 

Special Representative Zafar, Special Envoy Forman, and I met with interfaith groups doing important cross-border work to improve understanding of the religious beliefs and customs of their Christian, Muslim, or Jewish neighbors.  We were heartened to hear of the public condemnation following the desecration of religious sites. It was also inspiring to witness the expressions of solidarity with the communities targeted by these acts.  We visited the Max Rayne Hand-in-Hand School in Jerusalem -- itself a target of vandalism and arson -- whose students are a diverse ethnic and religious microcosm of Jerusalem.  In Hand-in-Hand schools in Jerusalem and Israel, Jewish, Muslim, Druze, and Christian children engage daily in a bilingual and multicultural environment where inter-religious literacy is a driving force to promote peace, not division, and where they engage in what they describe as the “daily practice of togetherness.”

One of the most positive meetings we had focused on the intersection of religion and environmental conservation.  Religious and secular activists, leaders from the private sector, and NGO representatives spoke of the interplay of moral, ethical, and religious views in promoting sustainable development and environmental stewardship. They recognized that environmental crises do not discriminate among people of different faiths and that there is a shared responsibility -- whether one is Muslim, Druze, Christian, Jewish, or of another religious tradition -- to address common concerns.

Groups like these will be the source of the conflict’s end and will help establish a diverse, cross-border community that espouses mutual respect, understanding, and nonviolent community engagement.  In places like Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Israel, interfaith dialogue is not merely a conversation; it is a practice of mutual empowerment for people of varied faith traditions that can bring about a culture of peace and effect positive change in society.  

About the Author:  Shaun Casey serves as the Special Representative for Secretary Kerry’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs.

Comments

Comments

Latif N.
|
California, USA
October 12, 2015
Thanks for your relentless effort in promoting a peaceful world!
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman, Special Representative to Muslim Communities Shaarik Zafar, and Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs Shaun Casey pose for a photo at the Mount of Olives overlook
Posted by Shaun Casey
October 9, 2015

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