The Words of the Pople Family

Middle East Peace Initiative - 29th Mission to the Middle East

Joy Pople
April 10 - 16, 2007

Lighting lamps, building bridges, filling in holes, and finding a common home were some of the images expressed by the 200 Ambassadors for Peace who participated in the April 10-16 peace mission of the Middle East Peace Initiative (MEPI). They came from forty nations in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa to take part in the Universal Peace Federation’s initiative to bring together leaders from faith traditions and civil society to augment the work of peace in a key trouble spot of the world.

Following the pattern of the peace missions that began in May 2003, people went to holy sites honored by Jews, Christians and Muslims and met with local religious, political and civic leaders. They engaged in dialogue, went on peace walks, participated in seminars, and shared prayers, meals and accommodations.

People’s hearts have been touched by the repeated visits from Ambassadors for Peace coming from six continents. "Welcome to Jerusalem, a holy land. You are filling up the holes," said Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari, head of the Naqshabandi Sufi method in the Holy Land. Four-time Jerusalem city councilman Dr. Eliezer Glaubach reported, "There are endless barriers in the world, between races, between languages, between cultures, between religions. Sometimes between men and women. The world is being handled in a system which is unbearable. Each of you who is coming to the Holy Land is led by some providential power to bring hope."

Asserting that human beings are essentially spiritual in their nature, MEPI works on the premise that a lasting peace in the region can only be reached by a commitment to address all the root causes of the conflict. These include not only economic, political and military factors but also religious, spiritual and historical grievances that have been left untended for too long.

It was a significant time for peacemakers to be in the ever-changing arena of the Holy Land. MEPI operates on the principle that inter-religious and international cooperation are essential to building genuine peace. Recent political developments included the March 15 formation of a Palestine unity government and the March 29 affirmation of the 2003 Arab Peace Initiative at the Arab League summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In a breakthrough of inter-religious relations, the Vatican ended its annual boycott of the Holocaust remembrance ceremonies and sent a representative to the Yad Vashem service in Jerusalem.

Ran Cohen, a member of Knesset of the Meretz-Yachad Party, said at an April 11 briefing that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories had led only to misery for everyone and that "each suffers from different things, but both [sides] suffer. Yet, we have the best chance for peace in the Middle East." Taleb Al Sana, the longest-serving Arab member of the Knesset, also saw hope in the Arab League initiative. "One of the main issues is that no one wants to talk to their enemies," he said. "But I’m asking, how can we have peace if no one wants to talk?"

MEPI patiently pursues dialogue with the whole range of religious traditions, even though it is sometimes difficult to digest the contents. At one briefing, Sheikh Taysir Tamimi, head of the Shari’a courts of Palestine, expressed a surprising interest in dialogue with Jewish people, even the extremists, adding, "I learned many things about peace from this movement."

Azam al-Ahmad, deputy president of Palestine, from the Fatah Party, stated at an April 14 MEPI briefing, "We want to cooperate with the Israeli state and live at peace with Israel." The following day, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert had a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas that was scheduled to cover the less sensitive issues between the two sides. However, the New York Times reported that it was "the first time since January 2001, he said, that an Israeli prime minister and a Palestinian president had addressed fundamental issues."

People gained new perspectives of history as they saw the land and met its people. Ambassador Pellumb Khufi, member of the Parliament of Albania and former Ambassador to Rome, said, "After this visit to the Holy Land I have to reflect differently on history. It’s different when you touch reality with your own hand. I am touched by the reality in the Holy Land." A historian by training, he said he had visited nearby Bosnia in 1995, after the war, and described the landscape as apocalyptic. He quoted US President Bill Clinton’s comment that "we won the war, and now we have to win the peace." Other students of history remarked that Muslims have lived in peace with Jews and Christians for centuries and it can happen again.

A number of participants in the peace mission had personal experiences living in lands of divisions and war, such as Germany, Bosnia, Sudan, Korea and Guatemala. Rajinder Singh, an educator living in Birmingham, England, spoke of growing up in his native Punjab when it was one land and now experiencing the pain of a divided land.

"This organization taught me so much patience," commented Haitham Bundakji, vice-president of the Islamic Society of Orange County, California. Born in Jordan after his parents fled Palestine in 1948, he said, "Seeing all the obstacles and suffering, I get upset, but I have been learning how to be patient and work hard for peace."

Rt. Rev. Riah Abu El-Assal, former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, referred to the special challenges faced by the dwindling numbers of Arab Christians, who constitute barely 1.5 percent of the population of the Holy Land. "I have been detained many times at the airport," he said, "and I tell them, ‘No matter what you do, you can never make me hate you.’ St. Paul wrote: ‘God was in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to himself, and he has given us the ministry of reconciliation.’ There were two events in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago: the birth of Jesus and the killing of the babies by King Herod. Rachel is still weeping. How can we put an end to the misery of the mothers of Bethlehem? Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in this land for thousands of years. The two women who came to King Solomon both claimed to be mother of a baby. The real mother said, ‘Don’t partition the baby.’ To enable two peoples to live side by side is not the mission of the politicians but of the children of God."

Baruch Shalev, president of the Israeli Institute for Strategy for Peace and organizer of service projects bringing together Jewish and Palestinian youth said: "Without true reconciliation we will not have true peace, not in our families or in our nation or region. Reconciliation is not a political exercise but rather a spiritual, emotional and moral effort that encompasses forgiveness, compassion and a will to leave behind the past and build for the future."

In a briefing with Israeli leaders, Hyun Jin Moon, son of MEPI founders, Rev. and Mrs. Sun Myung Moon, quoted a poem written by his father at age sixteen:

If I believe, I am deceived.
If I love, I am betrayed
Suffering and grieving tonight, my head in my hands…
But when I love those who acted against me,
I brought victory.

"The words [of the poem]," he said, "are poignantly related to the problems of this region."

Poet Shelly Elkayam, an Israeli Jew, resonates with the MEPI principle that the highest standard in human relationships is to live for the sake of others. "It sounds simple, but this is the answer to our problems," she says.

You can make war in a second, but it takes time to make peace" the deputy mayor of Bethlehem, George Sa'adeh, told the people on the peace mission. His 12-year-old daughter was killed in 2003 when soldiers fired on his car by accident. Israeli members of Bereaved Families Forum who had lost a child reached out to him. Now he compares making peace to raising a child.

This resonates with the MEPI principle that the family is the central institution of all societies and is the "school of love and peace" for the growth and development of all people. "What happened to me gave me more faith in God," the leader from Bethlehem said. "I am devoted to peace for my neighbors." Former Knesset member from Jerusalem, Walid Sadik, also has a long-range view of peace: "The more things we resolve, the better the legacy we will give to our sons, our children and ourselves, too."

People coming from the United States brought their touchstones of inspiration. There were frequent references to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including the following quote cited by Johnnie Mack: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere." He is now a special assistant to his son, Martin Luther King III. Donzella James, former state senator from Georgia, Dr. King’s home state, commented that there are many walls that are invisible and they are coming down. She quoted Dr. King’s saying: "The arc of the universe is long, but it will bend toward justice." Although the conflict in the Middle East is sometimes described as a conflict among Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with a common lineage through Abraham, insights from other traditions can be helpful. Mahatma Gandhi’s warning seems relevant: "If we practice and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be blind and toothless."

The search for peace in the Middle East involves the heirs of Abraham’s faith. "Therefore, we must turn to God, we must find our common roots," explains MEPI Committee co-chair, Rev. Michael Jenkins. "In our scriptures there are common roots, common truths, that bind us together, and though the tensions are great through dialogue and serving the needs of the people we can dissolve the tension and become one family. At the Dome of the Rock the faithful come and pray, while other sons of Abraham come and pray at the Western Wall and at the church of the Holy Sepulcher. Eventually we want to see these prayers being made in a place where no guns are no longer present."

Even pop music can be enlisted in the cause of peace-building, as reflected in Archbishop George Augustus Stallings’ quote from the lyrics of Michael Jackson: "I’m starting with the man in the mirror."

In the course of the seven-day peace mission, an imam opened a gathering with recitations from the Qur’an, a rabbi chanted a blessing over the breaking of bread, and a Christian pastor illustrated a point by singing a Gospel song. The roles sometimes rotated, as the tasty and diverse spiritual diet was complemented by abundant daily buffet meals of vegetables, fruits, breads and meat.

There seems to be no end to the walls going up and houses being torn down. One Israeli said that the sense of loss from the Holocaust grows more painful with each passing year. Among the international representatives who laid wreaths at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 16, were two participants in the peace mission from the United States and Somalia. Hod Ben Zvi, secretary general of the Universal Peace Federation in Israel, says "Both of my parents who were Holocaust survivors. Their parents died in the death camps. If people of faith had embraced each other seventy years ago, this horror could have been avoided. Let us liberate our ancestors, our descendants, and ourselves."

In the midst of the painful memories are also hopeful stories. There is a growing awareness of the need to help Israelis, including the third of the Holocaust survivors who are living in poverty. Muslim leaders are raising funds to construct a center for Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue and understanding in the Bustan el-Marq area of the Galilee, near historic sites honored by Jews, Christians and Muslims. UPF’s representative in Gaza, Kamal Thabet, has been able to provide food for more than 200 small children per day.

MEPI staff member Donna Selig talked about her heart being torn and pulled each time she comes on a peace mission. "It’s like a measuring scale. One side can pile up all the injustices, hurt and pain, and the other side piles up injustices, hurt and pain. Eventually the scale will topple over with the weight. What we need to do is melt it with repentance, forgiveness and love." Judith Anne Ratte of Pax Christi spoke of people’s need to empty themselves and allow God’s reconciling love to guide them in the journey to peace.

Women can reach out to each other and touch hearts in a special way. Jerusalem resident Rachel Glaubach said, "When I see the faces of our international sisters, I feel hope. You left your families to see first hand how difficult and dangers it is here. And yet you came to comfort those who are in pain and build understanding so we can work for peace in this land."

People on the peace mission had their own stories to tell. A Palestinian, Dawud Assad, former president of the Council of Mosques in the US, referred to 39 members of his family who had been killed in the conflict, yet he has dedicated himself as an Ambassador for Peace.

People brought wisdom from their various traditions. Dr. Henry Lozano, member of the Board of Directors of the US Corporation for National and Community Service, referred to the Native American Lakota people, who say that people of four colors had been scattered to four directions of the earth, blacks to the south, yellow to the east, red to the west and white to the north, and that one day they will all travel home and renew the circle once more, so that the four children of the earth may all live well, altogether.

MEPI upholds the principle that there is one God who is the Creator of all and the parent of all humankind. Muslims working for inter-religious reconciliation quote from the Qur’an: "Oh people, we have created you from a single pair of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know each other, not that you may despise each other. The most honorable of you in the sight of God, is the most righteous" (49:13). A frequently-quoted passage from the Bible by people pursuing peace is Psalm 133, which begins with the words, "Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity."

MEPI programs often include inter-religious dialogues. "The Jewish-Christian dialogue I participated in with MEPI was excellent," reported Dr. Bertil Persson, from Sweden. A professor emeritus of the University for Peace (UNESCO), he participated in a recent MEPI fact-finding tour. "I am very impressed by MEPI as a pedagogical project to create a new culture of peace, beyond all barriers between people."

After a week in the Holy Land, Brandon Jessie, a computer consultant from San Francisco, summed up what he learned: "Nothing made by man is worth dying for. Not a temple, not a wall, not a grave site."

Complex questions were aired during discussions with local leaders: What do the Israelis want? What do the Palestinians want? Who built the wall? What tangible changes need to take place to reduce people’s fears?

One speaker offered an answer that is perhaps simplistic: Palestinians are entitled to a home; Israelis are entitled to security. Security comes from reconciled neighbors. Yariv Oppenheimer, General Director of Peace Now, said, "The difficult task of the peace camp in Israel is to convince Israelis that if we make peace and give back these lands that there will be peace and security afterwards."

Other questions seemed to have no good answers: What are the prospects for a viable Palestinian state? How long will militants uphold a ceasefire without tangible benefits? What is the impact on the young people?

Not everyone agrees on the relative importance of religion and politics in the conflict. "We don’t see this conflict as a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians," said Dr. Muli Peleg, professor of international relations at Tel Aviv University and co-chairman of One Voice Israel Palestine. "It is not a conflict between Jews and Muslims. It is not a conflict between right wing and left wing, extremists and moderates. And we believe that on both sides of the divide most people are in anguish and would like to see a way to move forward to a different future."

While peace in the Middle East may seem a distant dream to many, Edgardo Castro, special assistant to the speaker of the House of the Philippines, Jose de Venecia, made an analogy to the movement to promote an inter-religious council related to the United Nations, an initiative spearheaded by the Philippines. Such an inter-religious council could assist the UN in more effectively dealing with issues such as the Middle East.

In December 2006 the General Assembly adopted by consensus of a Resolution co-sponsored by 51 member states on "Promotion of Inter-religious and Intercultural Dialogue, Understanding and Cooperation for Peace." The resolution calls for convening a high-level dialogue on inter-religious and intercultural cooperation for the promotion of tolerance, understanding and respect on matters of religion, belief and cultural diversity. It also requests the Secretary General to designate a focal point in the UN Secretariat for following up on inter-religious, intercultural and inter-civilizational matters.

As a participant in the MEPI peace mission, Ed Castro expressed confidence that drawing on inter-religious resources to promote peace in the Middle East is a realistic process.

It remained for each participant to ponder another question: how are Ambassadors for Peace to learn to love and dialogue with the extremists on both sides?

Advances in science and technology are not paralleled by advances in meeting human needs and reconciling enemy people. The US is one key to the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian territories. "America needs spiritual guidance; then it will use its might for the sake of world peace," MEPI Chair Dr. Chang Shik Yang told international delegates. "We have to make a spiritual foundation, then heaven will guide this nation in the right direction. Then this will be a true holy land."

"When you came the first time, there was no hope," commented Abouna Hatoum, Melkite Catholic priest from Nazareth. "All factions were hopelessly entrenched in their positions. Now I believe that because of these pilgrimages everything is opening up. It is truly amazing. We do not talk about peace, we do the work of peace; we ‘do’ the peace."

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