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HEADLINES

IEA meets even during recent war

While bombs fell on Lebanon and rockets crashed into Israel last month, a group of Jews, Muslims, and Christians refused to give up their efforts of true interfaith fellowship in the Middle East.  At the same time that the world shook its collective fist at the enmity between Arabs and Israelis, the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA) did not shrink from its ongoing efforts to change it.

On August 21, Muslims, Christians, and Jews held the first of twelve monthly IEA meetings on “Studying and Questioning Jewish and Muslim religious texts.”  They intend to tackle such issues as gender equality, relation to “infidels,” and others which are being collected from among the members.  According to the two facilitators—one Muslim, one Jewish—“religious Muslims, religious Jews, Christians, atheists, and secular Jews and Arabs will have an opportunity to exchange views and build together a new way to live together despite disagreement.”

That’s the key to the group’s significance.  Often, efforts at what is termed “interfaith understanding” are aimed almost frenetically at showing how everyone believes the same things.  They can have an artificial feel and suppress the honesty that demands all faiths be accorded the same level of respect by all participants.  What has come to be known as “political correctness” is often a mask for suppressing honest debate.  IEA, in contrast, acknowledges that each faith is going to lead people to different beliefs.  The key to peace is not forcing people into abandoning those beliefs but in all of us learning to live with the honest beliefs of others.

IEA has been active in Israel for five years with groups throughout the country.  They have chapters in cities and villages dominated by all of the major faiths there.   I asked IEA Director Dr. Yehuda Stolov, if there was any discussion among the various groups whether or not to meet during the war.  “No discussion!”  He said.  “Some groups just met regularly and some felt even more committed.”  Four groups were in the range of Hizbollah rockets.  The Karmiel-Majd el-Krum group is associated with schools on vacation, but its activists helped “support families that were hurt.”  The Karmel City group refrained from gathering on instructions of the authorities.  Two groups in Mghar, an Arab village of Druze, Christians, and Muslims where IEA became active after some inter-religious strife, “worked even more than usual as they partnered with the local community center to take care of the children of the village.”

Not only did none of the members refuse to participate during the war, but many called one other to offer their sincere interfaith concern and support.  As Stolov told a Bangladeshi paper a year ago, “We do not have the ability…to solve the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But we do have both the ability and the responsibility to build peace among ourselves.”  At one point Stolov received a call from people in Mghar requesting “toys and other stuff for the children…Many people - including a synagogue community from Eilat [a major Israeli city at the southern tip of the country] - responded positively and sent packages.”

In 2005, IEA held over 110 programs with over 3000 participants, including Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze from several Middle Eastern countries.  In September of last year, IEA along with colleagues elsewhere in the Middle East organized a conference in Amman, Jordan on “Charity.”  People from Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Iran, Morocco, and Tunisia participated.  Most IEA activities consist of small study and social groups of Israelis and Palestinians, meeting in Jewish neighborhoods and Arab towns. Members share meals and celebrate each other’s holidays.  IEA youth groups counteract mistrust and build relationships that come only from direct contact.  “Without such bases of [interfaith] mutual understanding and respect and trust - no peace process can be sustained,” Stolov said.

Stolov said that the most important accomplishment of meeting despite the war is that it showed that the “long-term, deep, positive and sustainable” inter-communal relations built by IEA continued “even in front of such extreme reality. This holds the real hope for an alternative reality.”

Unfortunately, he noted, despite the group’s success neither the Israeli nor Arab press has picked up on it or has even shown any interest.  “There is no blood in our stories,” he said.  As to IEA’s alternative reality, just before the outbreak of hostilities but after the kidnapping of the three Israelis, one of its youth groups met “to discuss the subject of captives, especially those from another religion, in the eyes of the religion. Not through a direct political debate, but using deep intensive study of both sides' traditions.”

IEA has helped build true understanding in one of the most contentious areas of in the world.  If it can work in the Middle East, IEA can serve as a model for communities elsewhere.  Recently, several Bangladeshis from a variety of faiths have expressed strong interest in establishing a similar group in Dhaka with the hope of building true interfaith understanding in Bangladesh.  While the peoples of Bangladesh might not be at war, they have seen a good deal of inter-religious strife.

And as Dr. Stolov noted, “Without such bases of [interfaith] mutual understanding and respect and trust - no peace process can be sustained.”

Posted on 07 Sep 2006 by Root
 
 
 
 
 


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