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Interfaith Peacebuilding

CALENDAR OF EVENTS

March 2017
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Interfaith Programs

Interfaith Conference in Jerusalem

Jerusalem, Israel - As civilian casualties mount in Syria, Israel’s northeastern neighbor, and concerns over militant groups operating in the Sinai trouble governments both in Cairo and Jerusalem, UPF’s Middle East Peace Initiative (MEPI) took another step forward with an interfaith seminar on the topic “Religion and Peace in the Middle East: the Significance of Interfaith Cooperation.” The August 26-28 conference was the latest of 37 MEPI programs since the spring of 2003.

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The proceedings, held at the Olive Tree Hotel in Jerusalem on an intimate scale, brought together 20 participants from Israel, the United States, and Europe, including Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Druze religious leaders and scholars of religion, diplomats, and political and community leaders.y

The seminar began with a review of both the opportunities and the limitations of religious and interreligious intervention in the region. Dr. Thomas Walsh, UPF President, spoke about the field of “Track Two” diplomacy in general, noting the need for a balance between “soft” approaches involving ideas and beliefs and the “hard” political, military, and economic forces that shape and transform the uneasy relations among all nations in the region. Yet he was ultimately cautious about the prospects for change. “The ongoing presence of religion does not represent an unqualified plus for humanity,” he said. “After all, religion not only fosters humility, hospitality, and self-sacrifice for noble ideals, but also often goes hand in hand with unwarranted yet passionate convictions, and a whole range of tempting pathologies.”

Imam Dr. Abdujalil Sajid, a Muslim leader from the United Kingdom, suggested that more could be done to explore the common ground between the major faiths in the region. “Muslims have failed to publicize the pluralistic vision of Islam,” Sajid said, noting that as a result Islam is often portrayed in the media as a force of instability and even terrorism. Dr. Marco Frenschkowski, scholar of religion from Leipzig University in Germany, cautioned that although scholars could and should do their best to enhance knowledge and understanding between religious traditions, there are always powerful emotional and social forces involved in religion that defy simple rational analysis.

A second session reviewed Israel’s relations with its Muslim neighbors. Ran Cohen, former long-term member of the Israeli Knesset, spoke of both hope and disappointment with the “Arab Spring.” Despite the possible increase in extremist perspectives, he said, the people of many Islamic states are at least beginning to question their own leaders and traditions, rather than (as in the past) taking the easy route of blaming Israel for all their difficulties. However, Israelis themselves should question their own deeper commitment to peace, because despite overwhelming support in opinion polls for peace with the Palestinians, the public continues to elect government officials who are opposed to the most likely solutions.

Dr. Eldad Pardo, a noted scholar of Iranian political culture, pointed out that Israel and Iran need not be enemies, despite the current rhetoric of annihilation. In fact, for a long period of time, up until the early 1990s, Iran had been an ally of Israel and had looked with interest and appreciation on the successful Israeli integration of the interests of faith and democracy, particularly with regard to the handling of religious political parties. Today the Iranian experiment with religious oversight of political life is under great stress and already several potential internal uprisings had been tried. “Israel need not and should not attempt to intervene,” Pardo said.

Ambassador Sam Zakhem, former US Ambassador to Bahrain, called for a renewed role for the United Nations in the region. Reviewing the major political developments from the British Mandate to the present day, Zakhem noted that disagreement between the former cold-war Security Council superpowers Russia and the USA had led to excessive use of the veto, preventing potential progress in the region. He called on non-governmental actors to continue working to find common ground that would allow regional powers to exert a calming influence.

Another session examined the particular contribution that could be made by religious leaders. Dr. Marcus Braybrooke, President of the World Congress of Faiths, called for religious leaders to take more initiative in exorcizing ancient and recent resentments and injuries, perhaps taking a leaf from Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness. Mr. Joseph Montville, who teaches at George Mason University in the US and formerly worked for the US State Department, drew attention to the disproportionate impact on policy of religious extremists from all faiths.

Dr. Michael Balcomb, UPF Communications Director, questioned whether a multifaith pluralistic future is the only viable alternative to increased polarization. “In the United States, pluralism has also led to individualism and relativism,” he said, “and the resulting moral decay in the US national culture—at least as portrayed in the media—may well be acting as a catalyst to further incite a rejection of western values by more and more sectors of Islamic society."

The UPF group was joined by an equivalent number of local UPF Ambassadors for Peace and other community figures, including a number of college professors, imams, leaders of the Druze community, and families from both East and West Jerusalem for a roundtable discussion followed by dinner.

A final session the following morning examined “best practices” and initiatives in Israel and worldwide. Several spoke of the importance of personal example, including Jabur Manzur, a Druze leader from Usfye who spoke of the principles of peace and harmony in the Druze religion as a foundation for interfaith. Imam Omar Kayal from Jedye said he made it a point to regularly visit with and support the Christian priest in his village and to make sure that Christian families, even though very much in the minority, were properly respected and supported during times of difficulty. Both Manzur and Kayal were recommended to the conference by the Ministry of Religions.

Two Jewish women scholars participated. Dr. Shelley Elkayam spoke about the impact of the MEPI interfaith pilgrimages in 2003 and 2004 during the peak of the second Intifadah. “Whether there is a relationship of cause and effect or not, the fact is that violence declined after these efforts, and it is worth continuing to invest in them,” said Elkayam. Dr. Nurit Hirschfeld spoke of plans to establish a new interfaith council or think tank in Jerusalem that could offer leadership training to religious leaders based on the foundation of the seminar.

Presentations:

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