The Words of the Mas Family
Elizabeth Henkin of Lahham, left, and Raymond Mas of Odenton visit a monument in Haipha, Israel, while serving the Middle East Peace Initiative in December.
Raymond J. Mas of Odenton, along with 13 other Americans, returned home Christmas Eve after a six-day tour -- a bridge-building mission to the Holy Land. Mr. Mas, who is a journalist, writer and educator, participated in a trip to Jerusalem designed to build bridges between Muslims, Jews and Christians throughout the region. The group included private citizens as well as respected Christian and Islamic clergy from Arizona, Texas, Virginia and New Jersey.
The trip was organized by the Middle East Peace Initiative, an ongoing global effort to join faith and civic leaders from all religious backgrounds to pray together, reconcile and help bring an end to the violence there.
The initiative has held 40 such pilgrimages since 2003, drawing more than 15,000 pilgrims from 147 nations.
This was Raymond's fifth trip to the Middle East. The participants, including ministers, civic leaders and private citizens, are part of Ambassadors for Peace, the leadership network of the sponsoring nonprofit group Universal Peace Federation.
Mr. Mas serves as program director for the initiative and is based in Washington, D.C. In that capacity, he makes regular visits to the Middle East.
"The purpose of these trips is to provide that kind of environment where people can learn, respect and understand the positive roles of religion in a safe manner," he said. "Where we have a separation of church and state in the U.S., it is not as easily defined in the Middle East. We seek to exercise influence to engage in peaceful dialogue and reconciliation."
Mr. Mas said he enjoys promoting the concept of interfaith and service as a way of life for relationship building and reconciliation and says he is keenly interested in citizen-to-citizen diplomacy such as that afforded by the initiative. Mr. Mas attended briefings on the peace process by officials at the Israeli Parliament and visited holy sites in Old Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nazareth, Cana, Galilee and Capernaum. "While at these holy sites we honor their religious founders and pray together," Mr. Mas said.
The initiative is distinctive in that Jews, Christians, and Muslims travel together to one another's holy sites and gain a first-hand understanding of the history and traditions of the Abrahamic faiths.
For many participants, this is the first substantial encounter with the people and traditions of the other faiths in a religious context, initiative leaders say. During shared experiences, they help strengthen their own faith and dissolve barriers of ignorance, distrust and fear.
Participants in the initiative's peace-building conferences have included civic leaders of Israeli cities such as Yona Yahav, who is mayor of Haifa; Dr. Eliezer Glaubach, former Jerusalem city councilman; Sheik Aziz Bukhari, a Muslim leader in Jerusalem; Naila Kharroub, principal of Dar Al-Kalima High School in Bethlehem; and Abouna Hatoum, a Melkite Catholic priest from Nazareth.
"When the high-level Ambassadors for Peace continue to come from all faiths and all nations, it gives us strength to overcome all barriers. We feel the world is supporting our efforts to end violence and promote dialogue and understanding," said Mr. Bukhari, whose family has lived in Jerusalem's Via Dolorosa for 300 years.
The Rev. Hatoum said, "Ambassadors for Peace do not 'talk' about peace, we do the work of peace; we 'do' the peace."
The positive learning experiences for the initiative's alumni have sparked interest in inter-religious peace-building, helping to counterbalance the images of conflict commonly found in the mass media.
The Universal Peace Federation was founded by Dr. Sun Myung Moon and Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon in September 2005, and has seen remarkable growth since. The initiative holds a wide range of inter-religious encounters, fact-finding trips, interfaith dialogues, cultural initiatives, athletic programs and service projects.
Donna M. Fellows covers Gambrills, Odenton, Piney Orchard and Seven Oaks communities. Call her with your news.