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Middle East Peace Programs

Roundtable Discussion on Religion and Peace in the Middle East

With over 50 persons in attendance, a round-table reviewing the role of religion in the search for Middle East peace attracted substantial interest from participants in a conference convened by the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace in Arlington, Virginia, United States February 28, 2003.

Besides representatives from the religious field – predominantly Christians, Muslims, and Jews from the region, the US and Europe – also leaders from other areas and persons from other world regions joined the session. However, representatives of the three religions and their various sects accounted for the majority of contributions to the discussion, beginning with two initial speakers who addressed the issue from larger Islamic and Christian perspectives, on the moderator’s invitation.

These two initial contributions emphasized, from the side of Islam presented by London-based Imam Abduljalil Sajid, the common humanity of the religions, the wide ranging agreement on central issues, and reiterated the necessity of inter-religious dialogue as prerequisite for peace among people and peoples. From the Christian faith, the opening statement by US-based Bishop Phillip Johnson, underscored that religious persons are secure in their inner faith and offered a perspective of hope from the experience of black American Christians. The success of the children of slaves and the children of slave owners in finding solutions to enmity gives reason to be convinced of being able to extend these solutions, Bishop Johnson said. He added a fundamental note of caution against war and a warning that a failure in making every effort for peace would plague the United States for years to come.

The ensuing exchange of views was both lively and disciplined, with very few misunderstandings showing on any side. Jewish religious leaders, who had been less vocal in the first 30 minutes of the 2-hour roundtable, entered their insights and experiences in equal proportions with the Muslim and Christian speakers during the latter part of the session.

Proposals for practical action in continuation of the work of the Middle East Peace Initiative included a march for peace from Rome to Jerusalem by way of Egypt and its AL Azha mosque, an important center of Islamic studies. Following this proposal by a Druze Sheikh from the Holy Land, a representative of that mosque highlighted the importance of justice and, for Muslims, the study of Islam’s holy scriptures in reference to their original intent and language, as opposed to interpretations and readings that had formed with time and circumstance.

Several subsequent speakers underscored that religious people, especially those who attend conferences such as the IIFWP initiative, are like-minded in their ambition for peace. Questions that religious advocates of peace need to address are how to open the hearts of members of their own congregations to the respect and acceptance of other religions, attendees said. Others pointed to the need for remedying ills such as illiteracy, poverty, and disease, and a member of the Israeli political class told the session that a stronger physical presence of inter-religious peace makers in Jerusalem would help political leaders there to keep their eyes on a vision of peace.

Where the discussion touched upon political and historical aspects of the relationship between Jews and Arabs, and the pain and suffering of victims of violence in their conflicts, a noticeable increase in emotions and momentary misunderstandings crouched upon the discussion. However, participants reminded each other quickly to look forward, and calm returned.

In the final half-hour of the session, roundtable participants underscored the importance of a task highlighted by the moderator at the beginning of the deliberations, namely that the representatives of each religion are responsible in addressing their radical individuals and groups. Words of hatred and indoctrination to hate should be eliminated, first from religious sermons and instructions, participants emphasized. Dialogue among religions must be accompanied by each religion practicing its principles and values, added others.

The roundtable on religion and peace in the Middle East served to re-state the point that the difficulties and conflicts in the region originate from political, economic, territorial and historic issues much more than from the religious differences. In their religions, the people of the Middle East have long been coexisting side by side, with very few quarrels over faith issues.

Over the course of the deliberations, participants made several practical proposals for moving towards closer interaction that could eventually lead toward a culture of peace. Most of these proposals involved joint action, such as promoting peace zones, varied possibilities of inter-religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem, fact finding visits to the Middle East’s nations, religious sites, and political flash points, as well as making efforts in peace education, service projects, and social development throughout the region.

The moderator of the session was David Fraser Harris, IIFWP Secretary General, Middle East Region, and IIFWP Chair, Syria.

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