EAST MEREDITH, NY: Mutual distrust leads many Palestinians and Israelis to think of peace as a mirage. Since religion plays a significant role in justifying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, politicians need the help of religious leaders in their search for a solution.
The problem is that often the patriarchal figures of the three faiths are too focused on “protecting” the community from erosion of piety or the threat of assimilation to pay enough attention to moral empowerment. Too many leaders defend ownership of land at the expense of justice, rationalize war and its spoils, and remind their people to track the enemy vigilantly using partial interpretations of sacred texts for this purpose.
Religious leaders from outside the region oftentimes also fuel the conflict, sometimes without even being aware that they are doing so. Based outside of the area and free from the considerations of local day-to-day life, these authorities too often espouse hard-line positions. The American charismatic church, for example, supports Israel automatically, even at the risk of threatening long-term Jewish security. To become enablers of peace, religious authorities will have to shift from a preoccupation with protecting the tradition from change to becoming agents of inter-communal reconciliation.
Prophetic change must start in the region. The pulpit message must become morally transformative. Religious leaders will take their place at the peace table when Imams, priests and rabbis shift their sermons from war to peace, from blame to forgiveness. Weekly sermons of all three faiths should also shift from promoting security through land acquisition to security through friendly neighborly relations and from defending hegemony to a willingness to accept the legitimacy of the other’s claim to land.
Good news does exist. Over 13 years of work with a variety of Middle East communities — on the staff of the World Council of Churches — I met many courageous religious leaders who challenged the institutional norms, tested their traditions and risked their personal security in working for justice and peace across the religious divide.
I witnessed the work of Palestinian lay leaders of the church who served their refugees for decades, not through charity but through creative self-help projects. Protestant churches in the Holy Land are pioneers in interfaith dialogue; this form of Palestinian liberation theology is relevant to all churches and all religions. Such theology serves the poor and the oppressed, regardless of religious, political or ethnic identity.
Many religiously motivated Jewish leaders in Israel are active in dialogue with Muslim communities. Some take this to the next step: for example, in the 1980s, a religious-minded peace activist and his wife, tried to return a house they owned to its original Palestinian owner whose family lives in a refugee camp in Beirut. The government refused the gesture, but with ecumenical support, the property was turned into an Open House for service and dialogue with Arab families.
Thanks to the support of some committed Muslim clerics, the leadership of the Palestinian non-violence struggle has shifted from being limited to a church-sponsored ecumenical project to nationwide civic resistance programs, which are ongoing. Demonstrations for justice in the West Bank are part of this movement.
These are some examples of how religion can promote peace in the Middle East. Yet, these should be replicated, multiplied and developed to break new ground.
Here are a few ideas:
Leaders of all faith should advocate religious tolerance through the school curriculum. Like issues of global warming, religious tolerance deserves a spot in the classroom.
Expanding on the idea of “prayer without borders”, how about starting a Jerusalem encounter centre, where Muslims, Jews and Christians could worship and pray for peace side-by-side?
Reclaiming Jewish heritage in the Arab world is another step. Ancient synagogues, long abandoned, are being renovated in Cairo and in Beirut. This rebuilding of Jewish heritage can urge reconciliation, yet such architectural projects should be accompanied by exchange of visits between spiritual leaders in Israel and the Arab world.
Experiences in Latin America and Northern Ireland reveal that community-based expressions of forgiveness by victims of war on both side of the conflict are morally powerful. Such collective expressions of moral fortitude are helpful in creating a peace climate and must be further cultivated by religious leaders. For example, Muslim and Jewish leaders could jointly help people who lost loved ones in war in order to organize for constructive change.
Even if politicians were to succeed in reaching an agreement, the enforcement of peace requires familiarity with reconciliation and experience with forgiveness, an essential element of faith. Without prophetic religious leadership, Mideast peace will most likely remain a mirage.
Dr. Ghassan Rubeiz (grubeiz[at]Comcast[dot]net) is an Arab-American commentator on issues of development, peace and justice. He is the former Middle East Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).