The Words of the Mas Family
Interfaith Service: - Hearts Touched as Brothers Embrace
Raymond J. Mas
MEPI Program Coordinator, UPF-US
At sunset on the plaza outside the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, a Jewish scholar from Jerusalem, a Muslim cleric from Kazakhstan, a Buddhist priest from Japan, and a Christian bishop from Nazareth all offered prayers for the unity of God's people and appreciation to God for sending Jesus. This interfaith service was a highlight of the 33rd Middle East Peace Initiative trip, December 4-9, 2007. The moment was enhanced by the Muslim call to prayer, the church bells chiming the hour, and a Buddhist chant.
More than 170 delegates from 41 countries participated in the International Leadership Conference in Tiberias, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and visited the nearby Druze holy site as well as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy sites.
A Russian participant was deeply inspired by the historical aspect of the Holy Land. To be where Jesus was born, preached, and walked made the Biblical stories come alive for him. He also expressed appreciation for the representatives of different religions speaking about the common base of all religions.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz from Burkina Faso said, "The diversity of people in the conference was very inspiring. I read the Bible for the past seven years, but this time it becomes reality." An imam from Kazakhstan was impressed that religious leaders did not try to convert each other but embraced each other, publicly affirming their commitment to live in peace together. He agreed with the assertion that all people are children of the same parents -- Adam and Eve -- and thus brothers, because it is also expressed in the Qur'an.
Breakthroughs of insights and relationships come on the foundation of the many years of MEPI development and the work of the Universal Peace Federation.
"The Middle East Peace Initiative brings the different faiths together to respect and love and not suspicion, distrust and fear," said Hon. Lois Snow-Mello, a state senator from Maine, US. She had participated in a MEPI peace trip in 2003. "To be present while Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Native Americans participate in a Passover Service was an extraordinary dream come true. We have come a long way since December 2003. It changed my life, how I serve my constituents, and how I work with my fellow legislators of all parties."
The variety of participants allowed for the creation of a stimulating and productive environment. An interfaith dialogue session chaired by Rev. Michael Jenkins, president of UPF-USA, in Tiberius was engaging and powerful. He skillfully guided the session and challenged participants to go beyond speeches and platitudes.
The panel was asked to address the question of why individuals are able to express love and unity in dialogue but families and communities still fight one another. A rabbi answered that faith leaders need to take the lead and bring the faith communities together.
A former Anglican bishop called for courageous, prophetic voices like Isaiah and Jeremiah to speak out and take public stands against the violence; he said that many people cooperate with the situation because they don't want to make trouble for themselves. An American civil rights activist pointed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as an example of such courage.
Mrs. Anjum Anwar was the only woman among that panel of religious leaders. She is the Dialogue Development Officer of England's Blackburn Cathedral (a diocese where there is a large Muslim community) and the only Muslim anywhere in the world to be appointed to a position by an Anglican cathedral.
After listening to nice words spoken by the men, she pointed out the need to openly acknowledge the serious problems which are dividing religious people and causing hatred and violence. Many participants came away impressed with the depth and honesty displayed. Mrs. Anwar moderated a women's interfaith panel and urged UPF to include more women speakers in the future.
Hon. Jean Augustine, Member of the Canadian Parliament, echoed Mrs. Anwar's call for giving more women a voice. "It was a moving and touching experience so see our brothers of different faiths -- Muslims, Jews, Christians -- praying together for peace," she added.
Witnessing people of different faiths praying together and embracing as brothers moved many participants to tears. "Morning prayer touched my heart," remarked Rabbi Michael Wiesser from Nebraska, USA. "Meetings with leaders of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism were so exceptional that it was often difficult to hold back my tears. The feeling of universal love has been palpable. In my long experience as a rabbi I have been blessed, but the blessings I sense now as a result of my interaction with all of the MEPI team are immense."
Bishop Musa Bongani Mbingo from Swaziland had a similar response: "To see the religious leaders embrace was the fulfillment of our trip." Bishop Grady Walker from Ohio, US, remarked, "Reading and teaching the Holy Scriptures for over thirty-six years is nothing like being on site. We saw miracles of brothers coming together."
During morning meditation, Canon Chris Chivers of Blackburn Cathedral in England talked about his experiences in South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, witnessing people rising above terrible sufferings and reach out to reconcile with former enemies.
The experiences of the trip and the reports of interfaith reconciliation encouraged people to make greater efforts for peace. "I want us to show Rev. Moon that we are advancing his dream for peace in the Middle East and the world," said Dr. Rahim Kahn of the United Kingdom.
"There is no other world leader who has gathered all religious leaders together. Muslims feel quite proud to join with Rev. Moon." Hong Kong residents Zaman Minthas Oaman and Ajaz Muhammed were inspired by UPF's vision of "One Family under God" and its potential hope for their home country of Pakistan.
Some participants had come with plans to establish ongoing relations with local people. For example, Herve Doyen, a member of the Belgian Parliament who is also a mayor of one of the districts of Brussels, brought with him two assistant mayors and two political advisers. On a previous MEPI trip, he had resolved to engage his district in a collaborative project with a Palestinian community. He and his staff visited the Bethlehem Caritas Baby Hospital during this trip and made plans for ongoing cooperation.
The diplomats on the trip had a special appreciation for UPF's ability to bring people together. Ambassador H.E. Mrs. Kan Akissi Yao-Ya, Permanent Delegate from Ivory Coast to UNESCO, was inspired by the spiritual atmosphere around the MEPI conference and appreciated UPF's ability to bring such a diverse group of prominent people together for peace.
Hon. Willem Bertens, former member of the European Parliament who had visited Israel as a representative of the Netherlands government, was impressed by the level of engagement among religious leaders and the atmosphere of openness engendered by MEPI. Mr. Hiroshi Matsumoto, who had worked in the UN system for thirty years, was impressed by UPF's vision for an "Abel UN" and UN reform.
People from Eastern religious traditions enriched the discussions. A Shinto priest from Japan, Rev. Tasu Nara, stated that a close examination of Shintoism reveals commonality with Abrahamic faiths. "People understand Shinto as paganism," he said, "but Shinto also has a sense of monotheism. The important ideas of Shintoism are not pagan, but show that God dwells in all things."
There are ongoing challenges for the MEPI trips. One of MEPI's great strengths is the diverse religious and cultural backgrounds of its participants, but large groups can make it difficult to ensure that all participants are fully involved. This is especially so when some participants cannot speak English and are thus limited in how much they can share with the group as a whole.
The right balance between time given to lectures and question-and-answer sessions needs to be reached. Time for meaningful interaction between participants allows them to feel ownership, deepens their bonds, and helps to make MEPI a lasting experience. True peace in the Middle East must engage all the region. Previous MEPI trips have included Jordan and Lebanon; the next level for MEPI's development should extend its impact to other countries in the region.