MAY 23, 2002
A Middle East Report
-- Dr. Mohamed Mosaad
The Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA) is dedicated to promoting coexistence in the Middle East through cross-cultural study and inter-religious dialogue. The IEA believes that religion can and should be a force for the good in the Middle East and beyond, and can serve as a resource for resolution, not the perpetuation of problems. We do not believe in the blending of all traditions into one undifferentiated group, but in providing a table where men and women can sit in safety and ease, while remaining fully committed to their faith.
To this end, the IEA regularly organizes inter-faith conferences. Twelve Middle Eastern participants, three from Egypt, two from Jordan, and seven from Israel (5 Jews, 1 Muslim, and 1 Christian), representing the Abrahamic traditions attended the most recent European-Middle Eastern United Religious Initiative Conference in Berlin, held from 6-10 April 2002. The participants were mainly representatives of non-governmental organizations. The crisis in Israel/Palestine prevented the Palestinian delegation from joining them and, naturally, hung over all participants. Had the conference not been hosted and facilitated by European participants, many Arab members would not have come. All participants from all sides, however, came to Berlin not only to speak their hearts, but to listen and to understand each other. For some Arab participants it was their first time seeing a Jew, let alone an Israeli.
While conducting the different sessions and activities of the conference, the participants found no problems making new friends, and began to overcome their mental and psychological barriers. Middle Eastern participants, who in planning stages rejected the idea of separate "Middle East-only" sessions, soon changed their minds.
In the first such session, the participants decided to face their fears directly and courageously. The roots of hatred are fears, they agreed. What would be the point of meeting without speaking our hearts and challenging our fears? The participants formed two subgroups, one for Arabs and one for Jews, and were charged with making a list of their experiences with, and opinions of the other side. When the two lists were finished, each group chose a spokesman from the other side. In other words, an Arab participant had to speak for the Jews, while a Jewish participant had to speak for Arabs. By doing this, the painful subject was put into a challenging, yet often humorous framework. Before starting this debate the two representatives exchanged their hats, a movement that made everyone laugh and relax. At the end of this frequently heated session, each group enthusiastically cheered its representative and expressed satisfaction with his performance. Naturally, the debate did not end in victory for either party. Nor did any group abandon completely its narrative. Nevertheless, participants learned more about another perspective another narrative, and learned that they must know it.
The participants decided to have another "Middle East-only" session to plan together for future cooperation. Shortly before this session, sad news of battles in the Jenin refugee camp began spreading. Participants, nonetheless, decided to go ahead. One Arab participant said that the fighting there did not render the work of the conference meaningless. On the contrary, it proved how much work remained to be done. All participants agreed that as they were working for the sake of God, despair and disappointment should not stop them.
In the planning meeting, the participants emphasized the importance of remaining in touch. Accordingly, they decided to launch a web-community, an e-mail list and a monthly newsletter. They also decided to network their activities with other relevant regional and international, governmental and non-governmental organizations. They stressed the importance of furthering the work of the United Religious Initiative by founding local inter-faith "cooperation councils." They also decided to plan for future meetings and conferences, and agreed to hold a conference in the Middle East next October. Some participants promised to reflect the group's vision by writing articles for local, regional and international publications.
The participants spent their last night in Berlin together in a friendly environment: taking photos, talking, and wandering around the hotel. On their way back to the hotel it looked as if Berlin might be the site of yet another wall's demise.
Mohamed Mosaad is the co-founder of the Middle East Abrahamic Forum, a member of the Abrahamic Forum Committee (a committee of the International Council of Christians and Jews) and a founder of United Religions Initiative cooperation circle in Egypt, where he resides. A psychiatrist and sociologist by training, he is also an Islamic activist, a free lance writer, and a peace activist.
The Interfaith Encounter Association, directed by Yehuda Stolov, can be reached at 9 Habanay Street, Jerusalem 96264, Israel, or through their website: www.interfaith-encounter.org. All are welcome to join their e-mailing lists by sending a blank message to either firstname.lastname@example.org (for those in Israel) or email@example.com (for those abroad). Subscribers in Israel will receive invitations to IEA functions.