Middle East Justice Reconciliation Mission #3
International Center for Religion & Diplomacy
by Brian Cox
Brian Cox and Bassam Ishak conducted a reconciliation mission to Syria August 16 – 22, 2006. This reconciliation mission was conducted under the auspices of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy based in Washington D.C. This was our third trip since January 2005.
The mission of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy is to address problems of communal identity that exceed the grasp of traditional diplomacy (such as ethnic conflict, tribal warfare and religious hostilities) by effectively combining religious concerns with the practice of international politics. As such, it is committed to faith-based diplomacy.
Trip Objectives and Results
1. To reach agreement in ICRD’s partnership with the Islamic Studies Centre in the details concerning a faith-based reconciliation dialogue for November 2006.
It was a difficult time to be an American in Syria, just following the end of the war in Lebanon. I encountered significant levels of hostility particularly when I spoke in one of the main mosques in Damascus at the conclusion of Jummah prayer on Friday, August 18, at the invitation of the Imam, Dr. Mohammed Habash.
Bassam Ishak (ICRD Senior Associate) and I met four times with Dr. Mohammed Habash and other officials of the Islamic Studies Centre, ICRD’s partner in the Middle East Justice & Reconciliation Initiative. There was a significant subtext to all of our meetings which made the negotiations particularly complex, tense and difficult. The elements of this subtext included:
1. The high level of hostility toward the Bush Administration and its policies on the “Arab Street”. This creates pressure on indigenous Middle East institutions seeking to work with American NGO’s.
2. The history of European colonialism in the Middle East which makes proposals from the West particularly open to suspicion. The patronizing approach of colonialism in the past makes ownership of proposals from the West a slow, painful and complex process for Middle East Islamic organizations.
3. The conservative nature of Middle East culture and society which is suspicious of new ideas and approaches to old problems. Hence, the concept of faith-based reconciliation as a fresh approach to the intractable identity-based conflict in the Middle East needs to be advanced slowly so as not to alienate Middle East Islamic organizations from the general population.
4. The pressure by Islamists on more moderate Islamic leaders creates a “tightrope effect” for them in terms of not alienating their constituency. Islamists are suspicious of any initiative that involves cooperation with the West. They are generally hostile toward any initiative focused on reconciliation with non-Muslims.
5. Suspicion that we might be a covert CIA operation. This is an inherent problem at the beginning of any initiative in the Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East conflict. However, given the passage of time and the growth of trust, this will disappear.
6. Suspicion that we might be a covert missionary endeavor. We have already managed to reassure our indigenous partners that we are sincere in our efforts.
7. Concern about the language of “Abrahamic reconciliation” given the presence of a small movement in Syria called the “Abrahamic Faith Movement” designed to convert everyone to Judaism.
At the conclusion of four meetings we reached agreement on the following eight points:
1. ICRD and the Islamic Studies Centre will be partners in organizing a three day faith-based reconciliation dialogue November 13 – 15, 2006 at the Sheraton Hotel in Sednaya, Syria.
2. There will be 24 participants: 12 Middle East Muslims, 8 American Christians and 4 Middle East Christians.
3. The title of this faith-based reconciliation dialogue will be “Seeking Justice: Working For Reconciliation In The Middle East.”
4. The dialogue will begin at 9:00am on Monday, November 13 and conclude at 5:30pm on Wednesday, November 15.
5. Each day of the dialogue will begin at 9:00am and conclude at 5:30pm
6. There will be a series of short presentations on the principles of faith-based reconciliation as a means of guiding the dialogue. The presenters will be Brian Cox (USA), Bassam Ishak (Syria), Tahir Aziz (Pakistan).
7. In addition there will be short presentations by Syrian Muslim, American Christian and Middle East Christian participants as a means of guiding the dialogue.
8. Most of the time in this faith-based reconciliation dialogue will be spent engaging in small group dialogue which will include relationship building, establishing common ground, identifying shared core values, exploring our collective identity, describing the problem that needs to be solved to bring peace to the Middle East, exploring personal hostility toward other groups, problem solving about the Middle east, discussing social justice and the sharing of power and privilege, describing offense that our groups have caused and received, discussing perceptions of history and identifying historical wounds, discussing our different understandings of submission to God.
2. To choose a venue for the faith-based reconciliation dialogue and negotiate an agreement with the management.
Based on a variety of considerations including cost, security, meeting facilities, availability and proximity to Damascus and the airport we chose the Sheraton Hotel in Sednaya which is barely three years old. Bassam Ishak and I met twice with the management including the Manager, Antoine Abbo and the Director of Sales, Maha Zeidan. We inspected rooms, meeting facilities and the restaurant. We left the second meeting with a firm offer from the hotel.
3. To conduct meetings with Syrian officials and leaders to continue to generate confidence in the Middle East Justice & Reconciliation Initiative.
We met with the following people during our mission: Dr. Mohammed Habash (Director of the Islamic Studies Centre and member of the Syrian Parliament), Ayman Abdel Nour (Former deputy and senior staff at the Presidential Palace), Sheik Ahmad Hassoun (Grand Mufti of Syria), Sister Agnes Maryam (Founder and Superior of Mount Jacob Monastery in Qara), Mr. Salim Daaboul (President of the University of Kalamoon in Der Atiah), Dr. Amal Yaziji Yakoub (Dean, Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon), Patriarch Zakka (Syrian Orthodox Patriarch), Dr. Georges Jabbour (Professor of Damascus University and member of the Syrian Parliament), Joudet Razouk (Attorney and former Deputy to the Chief of Syrian Military Intelligence), Dr. Abdul Qader (Professor of Islamic Studies, Head of the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Studies Centre), Professor Abdul-Nabi Isstaif (Professor, Damascus University).
Based on the results of this mission and resources permitting, we should move forward with the next stage of the Middle East Justice & Reconciliation Initiative.
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