muslim-christian encounter report

Muslim-Christian Encounter – Report

    Last year, Musalaha embarked on a new Bridge-Building initiative, targeting the Muslim and Christian Palestinian communities in the Bethlehem region. It has quickly become one of the fastest growing projects, attracting attention locally and abroad, and has demonstrated enormous potential for further expansion. The tensions between these two communities is real, and has become a serious problem. Many Palestinian Christians, faced with oppression from the Israelis on one side, and with osterization and even violence from some of their own Palestinian brothers and sisters on the other, have chosen to emigrate. The number of Palestinian Christians in Israel/P.A. has been greatly reduced because of emigration. They face increasing opposition from the radical Muslims, and suffer from the lawlessness and lack of order that has troubled Palestinian society. Muslim-Christian reconciliation must be sought after because it is tearing apart Palestinian society, but it is also necessary for more general reasons. Reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis is impossible unless the Palestinians first deal with their own divisions and can then present a more unified front when attempting to reconcile with the Israelis.

    After a year of preparation, (recruiting, identifying potential leaders, logistical arrangements), Musalaha held its inaugural Muslim-Christian Desert Encounter in October 2006. It was a great success and blessing for all the participants. They made serious progress in the building of relationships, resolving conflict between the two communities, and Bridge-Building. The same group met several more times in a number of follow up meetings, to further strengthen their friendships, and discuss how to implement what they had decided on in the desert. In the end of October 2007, we proceeded with the next step in this project, by inviting the same 24 Palestinian Muslim and Christians participants, and Rev. Brian Cox of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy to our five day seminar in Cyprus. 

Rev. Cox has invaluable experience working on faith-based reconciliation all over the world, and specifically working with Muslims and Christians. He was asked to lead the seminar, and we were anxious to see if his approach would be applicable to the Muslims and Christians in the Palestinian context. He began by emphasizing our shared Abrahamic faith, and trying to establish a moral vision, with specific values that are common between the two groups, such as inclusion, peace-making, social justice, and forgiveness. The five day seminar was very intense, as is to be expected, as the days (and evenings!) were filled with lectures, training workshops, and discussion among the participants. It was tiring and yet very uplifting and encouraging as well, and the participants felt as though they had really acquired some of the tools needed to further the Bridge-Building effort, and to help resolve conflicts in their communities.

One of the most interesting activities we did during the seminar had to do with identifying our own values, and understanding the values of others. The Muslims and Christians were split up into two groups, and then asked to list what values were important to their community. They were also asked to list what they thought the values the other group would be. This is an informative exercise because although our values can tell much about us, we don’t often spend much time thinking about what they are, much less contemplating what others might think our values are. The results were fascinating for a number of reasons. First, they demonstrated how influential things like our faith, culture, history, and tradition are on our values. Second, they showed both the proximity in some ways, and the distance in others, that exists between these two neighboring communities. 

The Muslim group’s values:        The values Muslims thought the Christians would list:

1. Submission to God                 1. Forgiveness

2. Moral righteousness                2. Family

3. Religious Practice                    3. Religious practice

4. Health                                    4. Health    

5. Justice                                     5. Submission to God

 

The Christian group’s values:     The values Christians thought the Muslims would list:

1. Unity (between Christians)        1. Submission to God

2. Love and Forgiveness                 2. Religious practice

3. Family                                       3. Tradition

4. Respect                                     4. Unity

5. Security for the community      5. Authority

For example, The Muslims guessed that the Christians would consider ‘Family’ and ‘Forgiveness’ as important values, but didn’t realize that ‘Respect’ and ‘Security for the Community’ were so important, two values that take on added significance when it is remembered that the Palestinian Christians are a minority. Likewise, the Christians were able to guess that to the Muslims, ‘Submission to God’ and ‘Religious Practice’ were central values, but were sure that the Muslims valued things like ‘Authority’ and ‘Tradition’, which were not on the list. This made clear that while in some ways the Muslims and Christians knew each other, in many ways they didn’t, especially when it came to sensitive issues. The fact that the Christians thought that ‘Authority’ would be a core value for the Muslims says something about the power balance between the two communities, because the Muslims strive to obtain and maintain political power. It is an important value for their community. The Muslims didn’t know they were perceived in this way by the Christians, and hearing for the first time how they were thought of was a real turning point. After discussion they realized why the Christians had this view of them, and agreed that it is a value for the Muslim community. For the Christians, ‘Unity’ was highly valued, because of the many denominational divisions among Palestinian Christians, and because they are such a minority. The Muslims were unaware of how important this was to their Christian neighbors.

This exercise also highlighted the different religious cultures among the two groups. For while the Christians valued ‘Forgiveness’, the Muslims valued ‘Religious practice’ such as fasting and praying. We see that among this group of Muslims, the focus was on more visible displays of pious-ness, while for the Christians, the focus was on inter-communal values. In the end, both groups came together, and formulated a joint list of values. This was a key component, because it gave them a sense of togetherness and provided them with a foundation they could all agree on. Without values that are important to all, there can be no reconciliation, and it was encouraging to see that there are many basic values that are important to both groups.

The shared Christian/Muslim values:

1. Truth

2. Respect

3. Family

4. Peace

5. Security

    It was a good sign that the Muslims and Christians had no problem whatsoever coming up with a list of shared values. However it was also very interesting to see how culture and tradition plays a role in the shaping of these values. For example, you would think that for the Palestinians, Muslim and Christian, who live under occupation and in near constant conflict, would value things like ‘Peace’ and ‘Security’. While they did value these things highly, they were listed below things such as ‘Truth’, ‘Respect’, and ‘Family’. This is evident in Palestinian culture, where family is the center of society, and respect is not an option. It is also important to note that although they were able to list shared values with ease, the values they listed as a religious group, and the values they listed together, were significantly different. There was some overlap, but the Muslims clearly had some values that the Christians did not share, and vice versa. It is often these values, which are not common to both groups, that can lead to tension and conflict since they indicate conflicting visions about the future and character of society.

During the conference, a conversation started between a Muslim woman and a Christian woman, about the nature of God. The Muslim woman was saying our only response to God should be submission, while the Christian woman claimed that we could also experience his love. They were surprised to find that they were so far apart on this issue, and while talking about it didn’t make either of them change their minds, it did give them something to talk, and think about. It also helped them understand each other better, because your conception of God is a very important aspect of your identity. Seeing the difference and truly comprehending where the other person is coming from, makes reconciliation possible. This is always the first step. 

In another meeting, we split into Muslim and Christian groups again, and each group had to explain what about the other group was offensive to them. This is not an easy thing to do, but it is important for everyone to be heard, and for both groups to hear how they are perceived by the other. 

For example:

Christian complaints against Muslims:                   Muslim complaints against Christians:

1. Do not feel respect for their traditions                1. Christian self-isolation from community

2. Take advantage of their weakness as minority     2. Discrimination against Muslims in workplace

3. Treat Christian women with disrespect             3. Disrespectful of Islamic tradition

4. School curriculum too Islamic                           4. Christians get better treatment from Isaelis  

5. Palestinians suffer because of what Christians    5. They receive help from Christians overseas, but do not help Muslims  

in other countries do, collective punishment       

 

The Muslims were surprised to learn how threatened the Christians feel, and were shocked at their level of insecurity. The Christian response was one typical of a minority that feels under threat, and the Muslim response was also typical of the majority, generally unaware of the threat perceived by the smaller group. Most of these complaints were generally accepted by both sides; however some of them generated lots of discussion. For example, the Christians objected to the claim that they do not share the help they receive from overseas with their Muslim neighbors, and to the Muslim complaint that they get different treatment from the Israeli army, and are given passes to leave the West Bank easier. This discussion was useful for both sides to see themselves from a different perspective. Both groups were able to agree that there should be a focus on the young generation, because they are far more susceptible to the influence of radical strains of Islam that have gained prominence in recent years. The freedom to say these things openly, without fear of being silenced, and secure in the knowledge that you are being heard, is the whole purpose of this project. It is an enormous achievement that this group was able to talk about, and come to an agreement on the problems causing the conflict between their communities. Not only this, but they were able to listen openly to the other side, and expressed willingness to address these problems and make changes as a result. This was a huge step in the process of reconciliation.

The seminar ended with the whole group agreeing to continue with this dialogue once they return to Bethlehem, and to work together towards the implementation of the measures that were discussed. Among these was a condemnation of the use of violence by both sides during confrontation (even though they agreed that in many cases Muslims resort to violence faster), a proposal for a new school curriculum that is religiously neutral, and not like the Islamic-infused one currently in use among the Palestinians, and an initiative to begin a religious dialogue based on respect and tolerance. Perhaps most importantly, they agreed to investigate the mass Christian emigration, and attempt to stem this tide of Christians leaving the community. This is an encouraging development, given the recent increase in tension and violence among the Palestinian Muslims and Christians. As these community leader return to their everyday lives, their experience with Musalaha will hopefully influence their behaviour towards each other, and influence those around them.