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Day of Peace Observed at an Interfaith Forum in Haifa

Haifa, Israel - The UN International Day of Peace was commemorated in Israel by UPF with a conference on September 21 organized in cooperation with the Jewish-Arab Center at Haifa University. The title of the conference was: "The Role of Interfaith Activity in Educating People for Peace."

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At the height of the 30th floor, overlooking Mt. Carmel's green heights, 60 people assembled: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Ahmadiyyans, and Druze – to discuss the challenges of interfaith activity in playing a significant role in education for peace.

Mrs. Miri Kamar, Secretary General of UPF-Israel, opened the event with warm greetings to the guests and proceeded by giving a short review of UPF activities that were conducted in Israel during the past decade and a report on the work of "The Jerusalem Peace and Security Forum" and the "Interfaith Cooperation Forum" during the last year.

Mr. Amos Shapira, President of Haifa University, offered words of greeting. He referred to the uniqueness of Haifa University in having the highest number of Arab students, and in being a microcosm of the Israeli society in having students from all groups and religions: Orthodox, Reform and secular Jews, Muslims, Christians, Circassians, and Druze. "The challenge of the 21st century is the challenge of multiculturalism" he said and emphasized the role of his university in developing research and education in this field, and ways to educate people to accept the "other."

Mr. Yaacub Salame from the Ministry of Interior Affairs, who is also a Senior Director of the Non-Jewish Congregation Department, talked about his commitment to bringing together religious leaders and religious communities. He shared his experience in overseas conferences of UPF – where he saw representatives from different religions sitting together and learning to know one another. But when they arrive back home, they don't share even a word with the other religion's leader, who is only several kilometers away from them. This is why, in 2007, he established the Religious Leaders Council, which gathers once a year to discuss the pressing issues. Mr. Salame closed his remarks with expressing his opinion about the importance of the role of religious leaders, both in supporting community and family life as well as in the high leadership, and expressed a desire to find a way that they could influence politicians, guide them, and give them meaningful suggestions.

The chairman of the academic panel was the director of the UPF-Jerusalem Forum for Interfaith & Cooperation among Religions, Dr. Nurit Hirschfeld, who welcomed the guests and introduced the speakers. The first speaker was Prof. Ephraim Meir, the head of the Jewish Philosophy Department in Bar Ilan University. Prof. Meir is one of the pioneers in developing a new philosophical field: interreligious theology. In his speech, Prof. Meir emphasized the difference between the term "multi-culture" or "multi-religion" and the term "inter-religion" or "inter-culture." In a multi-religion/culture every religion is emphasizing its uniqueness and its right to be different from the other. In an inter-religious theology one should be willing to learn to know the other, and to listen deeply to the other. In that situation, one inevitably finds oneself in a situation of self transformation, as in the case of any serious and deep conversation. By being willing to host the other, to deeply care for the other, we can get to know one another, and by doing so, we find new aspects of peace. Peace is indeed a sublime purpose, and we should strive every day to achieve it.

The second speaker was Sheik Samir Aasi, the imam of El-Jazar Mosque in Acre. Sheik Aasi described the uniqueness of his city, where Jews and Arabs live together, and therefore there are unique challenges in the field of peace and bringing the two peoples together. Sheik Aasi read a verse from the Qur'an and gave his commentary on this verse, according to which religion is a symbol of love. Religion should keep people away from wars and should lead them to a life of good. "If I pray two or three hours, but then after prayer I harm another person – my prayer has no meaning." Sheik Aasi said that the key to start building peace is to understand the other side, to feel the other side's pain. That is the way for true understanding and therefore the way for peace. He shared with the audience his personal experience with a Jewish neighbor who treated him badly. This neighbor changed his negative attitude to a positive one after Sheik Aasi stopped resenting him, tried to understand his pain, and helped him when he needed help. "The good deeds that we do to others move their hearts and change them towards goodness and peace," he concluded.

The third and last speaker on the panel was Prof. Ytshak Weismann, the director of the Jewish-Arab Center. Prof. Weismann talked about several projects of the Jewish-Arab Center. Their flagship project is in Acre, a unique city in the fact that Jews and Arabs live together not only in the same city but also in the same neighborhoods, and sometimes even in the same buildings. The Jewish-Arab Center held about ten different projects in Acre, including educational projects to counter racism and research projects. In one of the projects, Jews, Christians, and Muslims studied Holy Scriptures together and realized that they have many concepts and beliefs in common. In the last part of his speech, Prof. Weismann mentioned a poll that they took, asking people whether they thought religion brings peace closer or pushes it farther away. The results of the poll showed that the majority thought religion pushes peace farther away and that religious leaders are inciting people against peace. Even though religions talk about peace, the common concept of people is that religious leaders are not supporting peace. This is a gap which needs to be analyzed, he said.

Before the panel ended, Mrs. Nadia Hiluo, a former Knesset member, shared with the guests her experiences in a UPF International Leadership Conference. She was impressed by the gathering of religious leaders and political leaders from all around the globe. There were discussions as well as reviews of UPF service projects, which showed that this organization is successful in translating the spiritual beliefs into practical projects. "I realized that in order to do meaningful activity in our society, it is important to have a belief and a spiritual vision." Mrs. Hiluo talked about the role of religions in peacebuilding. There is no religion that calls for war, but there are wrong uses of religious ideas. "We should give power to the good values in religions," she added. Religions have strong influence on many people. This is why it is important to let religious leaders make their voices heard to promote peace. It is true that the pen and the signature on peace treaties are those of politicians, but the signature is only the end of a very long process, in which many aspects and powers are involved. In this long process, the spiritual aspect should not be ignored.

Sheik Ali Birani, President of the UPF-Jerusalem Forum for Interfaith & Cooperation among Religions, greeted the guests and emphasized the variety of the participants in the conference – Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze – who gathered together for one thing: for peace.

In the second part of the conference, the guests sat at round tables to deepen the discussion. Dr. Hirschfeld suggested four questions to discuss in the small groups: 1) what are the ways believers of one religion can help believers of another religion? 2) How can we emphasize the values of peace that are rooted in every religion, so that they can override the points of disagreement? 3) What can be done in interfaith understanding meetings that can lead to practical cooperation between the different religions? 4) Should we try to tackle the deeper divisive issues, and if so how?

After a 30-minute discussion, a representative from each table shared briefly with the entire conference the main points of their discussion: In the first table, Mr. Yaakub Salame suggested creating a special day to celebrate the "Holiday of All Religions": a celebration of religious freedom, friendship, love for humankind, love for the other, and love for the enemy – those are common values in all religions.

In the second table, Mrs. Sana Elbaz suggested studying Holy Scriptures together as a way to better understand the origins of the other religions. Mr. Dani Rahamim said that both Jews and Arabs in Israel should stop seeing themselves as victims, and by doing so the door for peace will be opened.

The representative of the third table was Mrs. Hanadi Assad, a Druze widow whose husband was killed as a soldier in Gaza at the time of the Oslo peace process. She expressed her heart wishing for forgiveness and rejecting revenge, "I am not willing to avenge my husband’s blood with more bloodshed. We are all human beings; we should walk hand in hand as one family and make peace. If we make peace at our home, we will bring peace to the rest of the world."

The last table described a disagreement among two Jewish representatives from different congregations. Dr. Shelly Elkayam spoke about the importance of reconciliation between different groups within the same religion and added that the root of each conflict is going back to the brothers' conflict between Cain and Abel, and between Jacob and Esau. Accepting this analysis, Mrs. Judi Hirschfeld suggested a way to overcome the conflict. Brothers in a family usually fight because of jealousy and competition over their parents’ love. In analogy to conflicts among religious groups, she suggested to have trust in God's love and to trust God that he has enough love for all of us.

Mr. Asher Nof said that God is the father of all humankind; therefore, all people and all religions are brothers and sisters as parts of one body. If we care for each other as members of the same family, we can create world peace. Mrs. Rachel Epstein called all interfaith groups that gathered that morning to continue to work together.

The conference concluded with a lecture by Mrs. Miri Kamar. The lecture reviewed the historical periods of the work of Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his wife, Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon in the field of interfaith activities since 1954. It also included a short overview of UPF’s activities in other fields worldwide. The lecture ended with an explanation of the five core values of Ambassadors for Peace.

For a report on the University of Haifa website, click here.

See photos of observances in other nations of the International Day of Peace 2013.

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