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Middle East Peace Programs

S. Elkayam: A Religious Model in Action: Sun Myung Moon and the Middle East Peace Initiative, 2003 to 2005

 Presentation at a conference on “Religion and Peace in the Middle East: the Significance of Interfaith Cooperation”
Jerusalem, Israel - August 26-28, 2012
Published in UPF's interfaith journal
Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2012
Theme: Religion and Peace in the Middle East

Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Korean founder of the Unification Church, called upon 40 religious scholars in 1984 to compile a comparative anthology of the teachings of the sacred texts of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and other major world religions. Assuming that “we live in an ecumenical age,” Rev. Moon commissioned the World Scripture Project to allow all believers to benefit from the richness and wisdom of others’ faiths and “in order to serve the cause of world peace.” The goal was to understand other religions “each on its own terms.”[1] Twelve years after this volume was published, Rev. Moon launched the Middle East Peace Initiative (MEPI), a global movement of interfaith pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land. The pilgrimages continued and relevant visits continue to this day, but the first 13 programs are registered in this study.

My intention in this article is to provide a report on the work of MEPI from 2003 to 2005 during the extremely violent Second Intifada, also known as the Oslo War and the Al-Aqsa Intifada (September 2000 to late 2005).[2] It is a war that has not yet been registered in records in the usual terms of win and loss.[3]

I argue that these MEPI pilgrimages were a religious educational tool designed by a religious actor as a global model of peacebuilding.[4] Moreover, I suggest that the intensive interfaith activity carried out during the pilgrimages, by both the pilgrims as well as a wide array of believers of various faiths from the Holy Land, represented a new model of interfaith activism carried out during a ferocious war zone and was meant to bring the faiths together and serve the cause of world peace.

Historical Background

The MEPI initiative took place following the collapse of the Middle East peace process and the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000. Paradoxically, the fall of the political peace efforts into the abyss of war eventually opened the way for another approach. MEPI departed from earlier Middle East peace initiatives in three ways: (1) it focused on the religious-spiritual dimensions, leaving aside the secular, nationalistic haggling of previous years; (2) unlike earlier initiatives including those sharing a mainly religious approach, MEPI brought religious leaders from faraway places into the dangerous war zone instead of arranging conferences and workshops in remote, comfortable locations[5]; and (3) while other initiatives tended to invite a selected few from the region’s secular/westernized “peace camps,” Rev. Moon’s MEPI – while not neglecting the elites – welcomed large numbers of grassroots religious and intellectual female and male activists, both from among the world pilgrims and from among locals. These grassroots individuals became pioneers in the struggle for peace.

In an unprecedented move in the history of the conflict and perhaps in world history at large, hundreds and thousands of interfaith leaders – the “pilgrims” – flocked wave after wave into the war zone in Jerusalem and the Holy Land at great risk. They marched for peace, met bereaved families from all sides, participated in peace conferences and moving interfaith ceremonies, performed voluntary work, and prayed respectfully at religious sites. According to one estimate, in its first year and a half, more than 10,000 religious leaders, civic officials, NGO leaders, professionals, and Unification Church members from throughout the world landed in Israel’s Ben-Gurion international airport to participate in pilgrimages across the Holy Land. Defying danger, the pilgrims visited “nearly every mosque, synagogue, kibbutz, and community center in Israel.”[6] The violence of the Second Intifada was often deliberately directed against unsuspecting civilians. Suicide bombers visited hotels, restaurants, buses, and other public places, only to detonate themselves, killing and maiming everyone in their vicinity. It is said that in Operation Defensive Shield (March 29-May 10, 2002) Israel’s Defense Forces broke the back of the terror infrastructure. Still, in 2003 shootings and suicide bombings continued and no political solution was in the offing. Personal danger for the incoming peace pilgrims was immense. Within one and a half years, Rev. Moon organized 13 multi-religious MEPI programs.[7] Rev. Moon himself was not among the pilgrims in 2003 to 2005, but he definitely was instructing them.

The Second Intifada’s violence shocked the State of Israel and traumatized a great many of its citizens. Children of Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab countries, victims of previous attacks against Israel and Israeli Druze, Muslims, and Christians all were now seeing their hopes for peace being shattered. The neglect of religion in a deeply religious region was part of the problem. A previous trauma in the history of the peace process was the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv on November 4, 1995. Both the leadership and the general public failed to appreciate the urgent need for incorporating religious perspectives into the framework of the peace process.The architects of the Oslo peace process of 1993 from all sides ignored the crucial religious dimension of any peace process in the Holy Land. Hence, Israelis and Europeans helped the Palestinians to establish a casino in Muslim Jericho in order to help the Palestinian economy, ignoring the Islamic prohibition on gambling and thus causing distress to observant Muslims. The Oslo architects also disregarded the significance to the Jews of Bethlehem as the birthplace of King David and Rachel’s Tomb as a holy site for Jewish women.[8] They misunderstood the ties between Judaism and Christianity in places such as Bethlehem, Jesus’ birthplace. The clashes between the secular policymakers and the religious leadership culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a religious zealot. It is no wonder that the visit of then private citizen Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, the holiest place to Judaism and the original qibla (direction of prayer) of the Sunni Muslims, is considered one of the immediate reasons for the outbreak of hostilities. It is no wonder that 39 Palestinian gunmen invaded the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002, holding 46 priests and 200 civilians hostage, leading to a prolonged siege. Moreover, as many gradually began to understand that religion could be a problem, only a few appreciated that religion could also be the solution, if only considered in a new way.

Rev. Moon was among the first to notice both the power of religion and the danger of ignoring it. Already in December 2000, his Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace (IIFWP, now known as the Universal Peace Federation, UPF) convened a peace conference in Herzliya, Israel, with more than a hundred participants – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, and Hebrew Israelites – attending. Other religious actors followed suit. Since the Oslo Accords had taken a secular approach in which the religious dimension was not dealt with, support was sought from an interfaith actor – the World Conference on Religion and Peace - with its associates. On January 21, 2002 religious leaders of the Holy Land gathered in peaceful Alexandria, Egypt, under its umbrella and with the support of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, and issued the Alexandria Declaration.

The Middle East Peace Initiative

In Washington D.C., March 2003, IIFWP convened a conference with religious leaders of the Middle East. This conference launched the Middle East Peace Initiative (MEPI), which took a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to the issues with the following goals:

  • To gain a deeper understanding of the Middle East,
  • To identify both intransigent points of impasse and windows of opportunity unique to the present moment,
  • To create concrete, incremental activities that would contribute to solving conflict and make tangible impacts in the region, and
  • To establish a network of committed, mutually supportive persons from all vocations dedicated to the establishment of long-term peace in the region.

That May, a delegation of more than a hundred people came to Jerusalem without assurance of safety. They went from the airport directly to Jerusalem, filling a few of the many empty hotels of a city suffering from the turmoil of terror, walking on streets which had been empty 24 hours a day. The following peace pilgrimages all included a peace walk through the sites of the Holy Sepulcher, Western Wall, and Temple Mount,[9]as well as visits to Muslim sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Gaza, and Ramallah and Druze sites on Mount Carmel. Shortly after these pilgrimages, the violence in the region declined.

The Middle East Peace Initiative (MEPI) was based on efforts Rev. Moon had started previously. In his autobiography he says:  

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein [invaded] Kuwait, […] I could see that the world was about to be swept up in the vortex of war. I concluded that Christian and Muslim leaders must meet to stop the conflict, and I acted immediately to do everything I could to stop a war in which innocent people were sure to die. On October 2 of the same year, I sent members of our church to Cairo to deliver my urgent message of peace to the highest spiritual authorities of the Middle East and the Muslim world. […]  

I implored President George H.W. Bush through direct correspondence to avoid war in the Arab world, and instead work to realize Saddam Hussein’s retreat through diplomatic means. President Bush may have thought he was going to war against Iraq, but that is not how Muslims would think. In the mind of Muslims, religion exists in a higher position than the nation-state. I was very concerned that if Iraq were attacked, the Arab world would join in opposition to the United States and the Christian world. Our emergency conference in Cairo involved top Muslim leaders and grand muftis from nine countries, including the grand muftis of Syria and Yemen. At the core of the meeting was my desperate appeal to the Arab and Muslim world not to support Saddam Hussein’s claim that this was a holy war. […] The Cairo conference was just one of our many peace activities. Every time a crisis arose in the Middle East, […] our members, traveling at a moment’s notice, collaborated with major organizations to work for peace. I am always uneasy sending our members to places where their lives are at risk, but it is unavoidable when working for the cause of peace. […] On September 11, 2001, we all felt utter horror when the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City were destroyed […]. Immediately following the collapse of the towers, I organized religious leaders from New York and around the country to pray and minister to the victims and first responders at Ground Zero. Then, in October, I convened a major interfaith conference for peace in New York City.[10]

This was the first international gathering in New York after the 9/11 attacks. Major faith leaders traveled to New York in the wake of 9/11[11] and to Jerusalem and Bethlehem with MEPI pilgrimages during the Second Intifada.


Rev. Moon was born into a Korean family in a village in what is now North Korea. In his youth he was a Sunday school teacher in the Presbyterian Church, but his numerous revelations led him into conflict with that church and he began his own ministry in North Korea in Pyongyang in 1946. He was arrested twice by Communist authorities, and the second time he was sent to a concentration camp in Heungnam from where he was liberated after two years and eight months as a result of attacks by US forces. For this and for America’s role in the Korean War, Rev. Moon has felt a depth of gratitude to the USA. Beginning again his church in South Korea, he was rejected by the established Christian churches, especially when in 1955 a number of students and faculty at Ewha University[12] joined his church. This led to the expulsion from the university of those who would not recant, and Rev. Moon was briefly jailed on trumped-up charges. In 1972 he began his ministry in the USA. Within a few years he had sent out missionaries throughout the world, including Israel.

Although Rev. Moon was a Korean, he was also a prophetic leader for millions of non-Koreans around the world. This interdisciplinary intellectual has hundreds of books and articles to his name.[13] He gave thousands of lectures and conference presentations. He is the founder of numerous peace organizations. These widespread organizations apply a soft-power approach to peacemaking.[14]

During the 1990s, few people were involved with interfaith activities. This was not of interest to intellectuals or politicians during the 1980s or 1990s. In their discourse, peace was associated only with politics, usually with the Labor and left-wing parties. Few intellectuals were interested in Rev. Moon’s Assemblies of the World’s Religions in 1985, 1990, and 1992. Yet in 2003-2005, the 13 pilgrimages were carried out under the guidance of Rev. Moon by organizations he founded and with the help of local people both in Israel and Palestine.

The Theological Dimension

Why should a Korean religious leader encourage people from around the globe to make a pilgrimage to a region where few of his believers live and where he has no obvious interest? Why was Rev. Moon leading a global interfaith initiative in the Middle East conflict? Rev. Moon taught that “Although secular authorities rule most human societies, religion lies at the heart of most national and cultural identities. In fact, religious faith and devotion have far greater importance in most people’s hearts than do political loyalties.”[15]Furthermore, he said that “Each religion should live for the sake of the world.” The following quote sheds more light on the mystery:

It is time for religious people to repent for their preoccupation with individual salvation and narrow denominational interests. Such practices have prevented religious bodies from giving their utmost to the cause of world salvation. Our age more than any other demands that we go beyond our faiths, and the interests of particular religions, and put our love and ideals into practice for the sake of the world.[16]

I found no sense of Diaspora in the teachings of Rev. Moon; there is no such a concept in his books. For him, the globalism of his movement is only natural, because the world should be a home for everyone. The activities for the sake of the community and world are organized through numerous organizations. All share the same principles.

Rev. Moon teaches the need for accomplishing human beings’ portion of responsibility for establishing God’s Kingdom on earth (which he calls Cheon Il Guk, in Korean). In his theology, the liberation of God and the salvation of humankind are connected through human responsibility. However, according to Rev. Moon’s Divine Principle book, they have failed many times, leaving sadness in God’s heart. The religious principles relevant to the peace pilgrimages are summed up in Rev. Moon’s words:

The central value in religion is true love, which can be described by the teaching, “Live for the sake of others.” The individual lives for the sake of the family; the family lives for the sake of the community; the community lives for the sake of the nation; the nation lives for the sake of the world. Likewise, my religion lives for the sake of other religions. This principle is true. [/] The source of this universal principle is God. In creating the universe, God invested Himself totally for the sake of His creation.[17]

Rev. Moon realized that the symbol of the cross divides people of faith when Christians focus on the death instead of the life of Jesus. Thus, in the MEPI World Peace Pilgrimages the participants, including American Muslims and Christians, set aside their prejudices against the Jews and came to bury the cross. The Jews did the same. They all set aside their own ideas about “Christians”; they further acknowledged that Jesus was one of the Israelites and asked his forgiveness for not realizing the value of his ministry. This was a demonstration of Rev. Moon’s teachings:

The ultimate tool by which to bring about the ideal society is love, true love. What is true love? Jesus defined true, God-centered love as that which is capable of loving even an enemy.[18] If white people love other white people, there’s nothing special about that. When white people love black people, though, that is true love […]. the formula of loving one another really works. When this is applied, it will turn the world upside down. From the moment you can love your enemy, the Kingdom of Heaven shall come. God doesn’t want just individuals to love their enemies. He wants to see entire nations that will practice this principle.[19]

Restoring history is another Unificationist theological principle, according to which God who as the sovereign over history wants nothing less than the complete vindication of all the providential figures of the past going back to Adam and Eve, in addition to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus as well as Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Wherever they fell short of God’s expectation they left negative consequences on history; for example, the conflict between Sara and Hagar has ultimately resulted in the conflict between Jews and Arabs. Rev. Moon calls upon modern-day actors to take the role of these biblical figures and complete their unfinished works with their spiritual cooperation. Of all the failures in the Bible, he sees the most serious as the crucifixion of Jesus. Rev. Moon teaches that Jesus was not supposed to die on the cross. He was to continue living and establish the model family for the Jews and through them for all humanity. This last point explains his focus from 2003 to 2005 on Jerusalem as the place to restore a historical mistake.

The third principle is the faithfulness of God: Rev. Moon calls our time the Completed Testament Age, when all the promises of the Old and the New Testaments have to be fulfilled. God will fulfill all his promises in this age to the people he has called, including the Jewish people, the Christians, and the Muslims. This means for the Jews to be the custodians of the Holy Land, to live in peace and dignity and to eliminate the curse of anti-Semitism; for the Christians, to fulfill the promises of the Second Coming, the establishment of God’s Kingdom throughout the world, as Christians pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”; and for the Muslims, to live in peace and justice.

Evaluation of MEPI as a Model of Interfaith Peacebuilding

How should the 13 peace pilgrimages be evaluated? I suggest evaluating two aspects: (1) the spiritual dimension from a Unification theological perspective and (2) the sharp rise of interfaith dialogue in the region.

On the spiritual level, two major events took place: the symbolic burial of a cross in May 2003 and an honoring of Jesus at Independence Park in Jerusalem on December 22 that year. Rev. Moon described these symbolical acts of restoration as removing the burden from the Jews, which he believed will make it possible for future peace activities to succeed.

The pilgrimages stimulated ongoing Jewish-Christian dialogue and reconciliation. In addition, they began a reconciliation process between Arabs and Israelis, especially by building bridges of trust and cooperation with the Palestinian leadership and with Jordan. Indeed, pilgrimage routes expanded to include Mount Nebo in Jordan and also Gaza and Ramallah. Mrs. Hak Ja Han Moon was invited to speak to scholars and religious leaders in Jerusalem in 2006. A good mix of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, as well as interfaith activists welcomed the pilgrims. Most of all, the pilgrimages allowed for an unparalleled amount of interfaith peace encounters in almost every location and among members of all faiths with the support of large international audiences.

A Discussion on Moon as a Religious Actor

This study of Rev. Moon as a religious actor in a conflict area looks at his background, theology, and motivation to affect and get involved in a conflict.[20] Eldad Pardo defined a religious actor in a conflict area as “one for whom religious considerations are central; he is one who has theological background to his activity […]. A religious actor is an actor who somehow gets involved in politics and tries to affect and have an influence on a conflict. ”

One may argue that as a charismatic leader, Rev. Moon was driven to initiate MEPI's Peace Pilgrimages as a new activity and mission and to expand the movement’s circles of clergy. One may also say it was the millennial concept of Jews and Christians merging into one Judeo-Christian body. Some among the Ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim) fear that his motivation was to convert them to his religion. But according to my observations in this study of Rev. Moon’s activities and purposes in the Middle East, he had a specific and clearly defined program based upon his distinctive theology of “living for the sake of others.” Rev. Moon was a religious actor for peace, and as such he invested in setting a personal example of a peace activity based on his religious philosophy.

To conclude, Rev. Sun Myung Moon launched his Middle East Peace Initiative against all odds, in a time of an unstoppable indiscriminate massacre of civilians across Israel and as political peace efforts all but evaporated. Rev. Moon was undeterred: he took this war and made of it a religious model for peace in action for his theology.

By focusing on the religious-spiritual rather than the political-secular, by bringing religious leaders into the battlefield rather than plucking activists out of the region into fancy resorts, and by creating a large global-local grassroots faith-and-love interaction rather than empty talk – Rev. Moon’s initiative succeeded in mustering the spiritual powers necessary to stop the violence in the given period of time (May 2003-December 2004). Some may argue that the dramatic success of Israel’s Defense Forces in 2002 and the creation of the defense barrier were the main reasons behind the blocking the carnage. Others may argue that the demise of Yassir Arafat in November 2004 changed the political horizons. Yet, others may rightly claim that peace has not arrived yet and that Hamas – armed to the teeth by Iran – is still committed to the destruction of Israel.

Still, how can one explain the long duration of peaceful neighborly relations in Israel and the West Bank since 2005, with the defense barrier still not completed and a political solution far from sight? How can one explain that even as Palestinian textbooks and media continue to attack Israel and avoid education for peace,[21] demonstrations in the Palestinian territories focus mainly on civil affairs and violence has become rare? As an eyewitness – among thousands of others globally and locally – and a MEPI observer, my thesis is that the religious educational principle of “living for the sake of others” has begun to permeate this land’s culture through the innumerable memorable interactions that changed the hearts of many people who to this day do not even know who Rev. Moon was and how much they owe him.

Poetess Shelley Elkayam is a founder of East for Peace, Women’s Council of the City of Jerusalem, and World Conference on Religion and Peace, Israel. She is a co-researcher at the Göttingen University and the Hebrew University, where she started this study as a Truman Research Fellow. Elkayam wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Jewish Philosophy at Bar Ilan University.

[1]  World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, Ed: Andrew Wilson, St. Paul Minnesota, 1991. Quotations from pp. xiii and 1.

[2] Casualties are estimated. For 29.9.2000-15.1.2005, see “Fatalities since the outbreak of the second intifada and until operation 'Cast Lead,’” B’Tselem [no date,] and “Terrorism Against Israel: Comprehensive Listing of Fatalities (September 1993 - November 2012),” Jewish Virtual Library [].

[3] Ari Shavit, “Lack of Legitimacy,” Haaretz, August 23, 2012. Shavit divides the conflagrations where Israel won (1948, 1967, 2000-2003) and failed (1982, 1973). He ignores the years 2003-2005.  

[4] Read Pardo's lecture for clarification of Religious Actor. Eldad, Pardo, “The Study of Religious Actors in Conflict Areas, ” Dilemmas in the Study of Religious Actors in the 21st Century, a conference of Truman Institute’s Religious Actors in Conflict Areas (RACA) Research Group, September 21, 2008, pp. 2-7.(Hebrew). 

[5] An example of a thoroughly secular far-away location was the pre-Oslo negotiations held secretly in Norway in 1993.

[6] Michael L. Mickler, “Is the Unification Movement a Peace Movement? A Sociological Analysis of the Middle East Peace Initiative,” Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 12, 2011, pp. 57-96.

[7]  The American Unification Church spent millions of dollars to support these pilgrimages, including providing some scholarships for Ambassadors for Peace to participate.

[9]  The Temple Mount/El Haram El Sharif is the third most important holy place for the Muslim world and the first most important place for the Jewish world. When the Jewish Israeli author Shai Agnon received his Nobel Prize, he mentioned in his speech that his joy was tempered by the grief of the people of Israel due to the destruction of the Temple. The Temple Mount is the symbol of the connection of the people of Israel as a national religious entity with their God, the one known as the God of Israel. For Jews it symbolizes their connection with God in a vivid, organized, mediated order by the Levites and the Priests. It is a location with restorational functions. Richard Rubenstein wrote: “[…] there is a thought of restoration in traditional Judaism that looks forward to the return to the Holy Land and to the restoration of the Holy Temple on Mount Zion” [Richard Rubenstein, “The Temple Mount and My Grandmother's Bag: An Essay on Inter-religious Relations,” Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2000), p. 80]. Jesus called the Temple “my Father's house,” but Christians understand this reference symbolically. Identifying Jesus as the spiritual temple as in the book of Hebrews, “a heavenly temple in the sky,” most Christians are not concerned about the temple as an earthly symbol of God's dwelling, except for some millennarian sects who link the Temple with the second coming. But Rev. Moon and his people do not think that way. They built their holy site at Cheong Pyeong Lake in Korea. Why then would he take an interest in the Temple Mount?

[10]Sun Myung Moon, As a Peace Loving Global Citizen, Seoul, Korea, 2009, pp. 238-240.

[11]  Ibid.

[12]  Ewha University is a women’s university in Seoul, Korea.

[13]  At the German Israeli Foundation panel in the Heidelberg Religious Science Conference in 2011, I presented a study about the vast corpus of material published by Sun Myung Moon: 735 books and articles, including his speeches from 1956 until 2010 and the eight major Unification textbooks.

[14] Read Nye's book for clarification of Soft Power. Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, New York: Public Affairs, 2004.

[15]  Sun Myung Moon, “Renewing the United Nations to Build Lasting Peace,” August 18, 2000.

[16] Sun Myung Moon, “Renewing the United Nations and Building a Culture of Peace,” A Report from Assembly 2000, New York: Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace, 2000.  

[17] Sun Myung Moon, “Absolute Values and the New World Order,” August 20, 1992. Quoted in Andrew Wilson, “Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Teachings,” in Dialogue and Harmony Among Civilizations: The Family, Universal Values and World Peace: A report from the World Cultural and Sports Festival 2001. Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace, Washington, DC, 2002, pp. 108-115.

[18]    “Aid an enemy before you aid a friend, to subdue hatred,” Tosefta, Baba Metzia 2.26.

[19] Sun Myung Moon, “God's Warning to the World, Book II,” in Wilson, 2002, p. 114.

[20] Translated from the Hebrew. Pardo, Eldad, ibid, p. 3.


Note: For a list of Middle East Initiative activities from 2003-2013, click here.

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